March 25 of this year will mark 100 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York. Some trace the beginning of safety regulatory attempts to the Code of Hammurabi circa mid-1700s B.C. The start of safety regulation attempts in the United States is attributed by some to the Massachusetts Factory Act of 1877. However, the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911, in which nearly 150 women and young girls died because of locked fire exits and inadequate fire extinguishing systems, was a turning point. This fire prompted enactment of laws and regulations instituted by the government to protect workers.
It was not until 1970 that then-President Richard Nixon signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which gave the Federal Government the authority to set and enforce safety and health standards for most of the country’s workers. It was also in 1970 that the Environmental Protection Agency was established as the first independent agency to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment.
History will also record that as momentous as the year 1970 was in protecting the safety of workers, the public, and the environment, the prescriptive safety science theories of prevention—the intellectual underpinnings of the new safety regimes—were already being eroded by our successes in science and technology. For in the preceding year, 1969, construction began on the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, Unit 2. The subsequent TMI accident marked a shift from an industrial accident paradigm to a systems accident paradigm. Sadly the Deepwater Horizon accident and all too many other accidents in recent times demonstrate that this paradigm shift has not sufficiently registered on the corporate or regulatory consciousness in many high hazard arenas.
Those of us trained and educated in high reliability demanding disciplines know it is essential to learn from experience, preferably the experience of others when it comes to safety. George Santayana, the Spanish American philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist is most popularly known for this excerpt from his book The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress (1905-1906):
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
So for this month let us be reminded about how far we’ve come as a people and a society in establishing safety as a value; but let us also remember those who paid the ultimate price for those lessons. HBO and PBS are airing special programs in remembrance of those young women and girls.
The HBO documentary TRIANGLE: REMEMBERING THE FIRE debuts MONDAY, MARCH 21 (9:00-9:45 p.m. ET/PT). The PBS American Experience feature on the Triangle Fire aired this weekend and may be viewed online at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/triangle/
Also consult the DOE Operating Experience WIKI for more information.