You've probably seen the signs stating that certain doors must remain unlocked during business hours. But why? The reason is safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has specific requirements for employee safety.
Some doors can be locked from the outside to prevent theft and trespassing, for example in a department store, theater or school. These doors must have "panic bars" or "crash bars" that allow the door to be opened in an emergency from the inside.
The Triangle Waist Company Fire
One of the reasons for doors to be unlocked is to prevent workers from being trapped inside in a fire or other crisis. One example of this is The Triangle Waist Company Fire of 1911.
The fire started in a scrap container on a blustery March 25. Possibly the result of a worker sneaking a cigarette or of an over-worked motor. Others have theorized that the owners themselves started the fire to collect insurance money since "shirtwaists" or the women's blouses they were making were no longer trendy
Locking the Exits
Workers, mostly immigrant women and girls, were trapped on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the 10-story Asch Building in Greenwich Village. Why? One reason is because managers routinely locked the exit doors to prevent theft and to prevent unauthorized breaks. Workers typically worked nine hour days Monday through Friday and seven hours on Saturday. The typical worker made an average of about $4 an hour in today's wages.
The Deadliest Industrial Disaster
It is reported that 146 workers died that day, 123 women and 23 men. Some perished in the flames and smoke some jumped to their death. The oldest victim was 43 year old Providenza Panno and the youngest were Kate Leone and "Sara" Rosaria Maltese, both 14. The oldest survivor was Rose Freedman. She was just shy of her 18th birthday the day of the fire. She followed the executives up to the roof to escape the fire. Because of her experience in the fire she became a life-long supporter of labor unions. She died at age 107 in Beverly Hills in 2001.
How We Stay Safe Today
Now we have regulations that require there to be a number of exits that lead directly outside. Signs explicitly state whether a door is or is not an exit. Fire doors are made of fire resistant material and close automatically. Doors must swing outward and the number of doors in a factory, for example, is based on the number of employees and the building design.
The tragedy is that so many innocent, hardworking and young women and men lost their lives to unsafe working conditions. The hope is that with diligence we can prevent such disasters in the future.