More than a century ago, 146 garment workers, mostly women, died when a raging fire trapped them behind doors that were locked by their employer to prevent perceived theft. They died of smoke inhalation or falls while trying to flee the fire, or were burned alive because they were unable to get out. In order to save money and increase profits, their employer had previously refused to install sprinkler systems and provide working fire equipment. Despite clear fault on their part, the employers were cleared of any wrongdoing in what is known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911.
Protracted lawsuits filed against them by the families of the dead were eventually settled for $75 per life lost. While this tragedy temporarily outraged the public and forced public officials to improve worker safety, which was the impetus for Workers’ Compensation legislation, years later workers are still getting injured, maimed, and killed and are not at all compensated adequately for their injuries.
I recently read a story in the New York Post about an incident that took place 10 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire about young women who were hired to paint watch dial numerals and hands with radium. At the time, these young ladies were unaware of the dangers of radium, which is highly radioactive with exposure that can result in cancer and other illnesses, as well as death. The women would dip their paint brushes in the radium and then paint the watches. Since the brushes needed to have a fine point, they would put the tip of the paint brush in their mouths. They were never informed of the dangerous nature of their work.
It appears that at least some, if not all, of the managers and owners of the factory knew of the dangers, but almost nothing was done to discourage the practice as it would have slowed down the work and thus reduced profits. Within a number of years, many of these women became quite ill and died torturous deaths. There was very little investigation by the Department of Labor, which was pro- business and worker safety was low on their list of priorities. Once the dying women learned that they had been poisoned by the radium, a law suit was filed. Despite the fact that the women’s skin was perpetually glowing, the company fought against the claim for years hoping they would die before they could testify, but eventually agreeing to a meager monetary settlement.
Both tragic stories are similar in that worker safety was very much ignored in favor of profits. The hope for monetary compensation was pretty much a David and Goliath battle with big business and insurance companies pitted against the sick and injured. Neither was a fair fight.
Here we are, 100 years later and still fighting a battle against greed. Once again, big business in the form of the Business Council is using its vast resources to try to get Albany to again reduce the benefits given to injured workers in this state. Those people who now are unable to obtain adequate wage replacement or medical treatment, whose lives are uprooted, or have lost their homes and their hope for a healthy future are engaged in a battle that they are financially, physically, and emotionally unable to fight alone.
You can help by contacting your State Senator and Assemblymember to vote against any bill that would reduce benefits to injured workers. Injured workers include those who have built your towns and cities, who have watched your children, who have served you at restaurants, and who have taken care of your sick. They are your family, your friends, and your neighbors – and they need you to help them battle Goliath.
Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.
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