The Exact Cause Was Never Determined
"An investigation ensued and the owners of the company were ordered to stand trial on charges of manslaughter. The exact cause of the fire was never determined, although many contended it was caused by a spark from one of the sewing machines or a carelessly tossed cigarette."
If you read what normally is in this space, you've seen a lot about the protocol it takes to manufacture safely and with social responsibility. You've heard about the changing regulations enacted to try to keep promotional products safe, and the fines, penalties and recalls enforced when they're not.
It's natural to assume that the description we started with was about the latest in a string of tragedies that have become so familiar in the garment factories in Bangladesh. Actually, it comes from Encyclopedia.com, and it's about a fire that happened 105 years ago last week. In New York City. The fire claimed the lives of 146 people, most of them immigrant women and young girls. They perished working in a 10-story building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Their average pay was $6 per week, and many worked six days a week in order to earn a little more money. They worked with heavy, dangerous sewing machines in dimly lit rooms with poor ventilation. Exit doors were locked to reportedly prevent employee theft. The fire likely started in a pile of rags on the floor and spread quickly. Only one elevator actually worked, and after one trip to safety, it stopped working. So many people crowded on to the fire escape, that it collapsed. The details from more than 100 years ago are hauntingly similar to events much more recent from across the globe.
But there is a key difference. Arguably, the public outcry about unsafe working conditions in sweatshops in New York was big enough, and the word was spread widely enough, that the tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was actually the flashpoint for the beginnings of workplace safety regulations on both the state and federal level across the U.S. So, the next time you think about the changing sands of regulations on garments and decoration, know they are there for a reason. As for factories around the world, while we can't regulate them, we certainly can set expectations of safety and social responsibility tied to business agreements. Like so much in manufacturing of promotional products, standard operating procedure should always be trust, but verify.
Jeff is executive director of the Quality Certification Alliance (QCA). Prior to that, he was responsible for developing safe and compliant brand merchandise for Michelin. He has worked with brands in publishing, consumer products, broadcasting and film for over 30 years. Follow Jeff on Twitter, and QCA on Facebook.