100 years ago today: Whether or not workplace regulations kill jobs the lack of workplace regulations does kill people

One hundred years ago the headline on the front page of The Tacomo Times read GIRLS TRAPPED IN FIRE DIE IN AGONY. On the previous day (November 1, 1911) a fire had flashed through one of the rooms at the Imperial Powder company in Chehalis Washington. The company supplied explosives to coal mines and the eight women (aged from 14 to 20) who died were working in the mixing room. According to newspapers accounts at the time the fire started In some unexplained manner and ignited the uncovered powder which lay on the long counters of the mixing room. Seven of them died where they stood. One lived long enough to be taken to a hospital where she died a few hours later. A ninth body was reportedly found–so burned that even its gender could not be identified. From the description of the incident it seems that something, perhaps a spark, ignited the powder that lay on every surface and filled the air in the room. The room was, in a instant filled with noxious and fiery gasses. The women, working in a small area between the counters and the wall, had no hope of escaping the conflagration.

The state of Washington had passed laws regulating workplace conditions earlier in the year but they were apparently honoured more in the breach than the observance. And indeed in the initial report of this horror the official statements promised A strict investigation will be held by Coroner Sticklln. How strict, detailed and exhaustive was the investigation? Two days later one can read the following headline on the front page of The Tacoma Times: COMPANY IS EXONERATED. In the two paragraphs below the reader would learn, that the coroner\’s jury last night returned a verdict completely exonerating the company, although it was admitted that the cause of the fire was unknown. And so eight women were buried, six in a shared grave, and no one was to blame for the fire. One hundred years later a monument, paid for by donations of time and money, was finally raised over the graves.

After public outrage in response to the ease with which any responsibility for the deaths was evaded the company was findd less than two thousand dollars (for hiring underaged workers) and the powder making companies of the state were ordered to pay the families of the dead woman just under a thousand dollars for each victim. Dupont Powder\’s balked at paying any part of the fine since it would be, in effect, underwriting one of their competitors.

This is what the work places of America looked like without unions and government regulations. Take care that such conditions do not yet again become the accepted \”cost\” of having a job.


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