After the horrific collapse of a Bangladesh clothing factory last spring that left more than 900 workers dead or missing, the world was appalled. Because major American retailers such as Wal-Mart used the factory to produce their products, it prompted an outcry against American consumerism. We were confronted by our reliance on foreign workers, who we exploit. These workers are paid so little that it constitutes modern slave labor. But, while the treatment of foreign factory workers by American business leaders is shameful, terrible industrial accidents take place in this country, too. While federal law and labor unions ensure that workers receive benefits and a livable wage, safety is too often overlooked and corners are cut to reduce costs. From the Industrial Revolution to today, workplace accidents have been shamefully consistent events in the U.S.
Among the worst industrial accidents in America
On January 10, 1860, a five-story mill on the Lawrence River collapsed in the middle of the work day. 145 workers were killed. Many of the victims were Irish immigrants, including women and children. Investigators determined that the seven-year-old building collapsed because of weak mortar and faulty iron pillars under the floors.
On March 25, 1911, a small fire started in a scrap bin on the eighth floor. It was 4:30 p.m., and workers were just ending their shifts and collecting their belongings and paychecks. Despite an immediate attempt to control the fire, it quickly spread. This occurred in large part because everything in the building was flammable and in part because the fire hoses installed in the factory did not work. The tragedy left 146 workers dead. The factory owners were put on trial for manslaughter but were found not guilty. The incident did, however, prompt sweeping reforms.
On April 16, 1947, the French-owned SS Grandcamp, which was carrying highly flammable ammonium nitrate, exploded while at port in Texas City, TX. The explosion destroyed the dock and the Monsanto Chemical Company, as well as several other nearby companies, grain storage facilities, and oil and chemical storage facilities. Flying debris caused several fires in the nearby town. The force of the explosion destroyed or severely damaged more than 1,000 buildings in Texas City. The disaster left 576 dead, 178 of whom were never identified. Because the chemicals had come from U.S. ordnance plants, the federal government eventually paid $16.5 million in damage claims. The disaster also instigated reforms in chemical manufacturing and transportation.
On October 23, 1989, another industrial disaster struck Texas. This time, it was in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, when the Phillips 66 Houston Chemical Complex caught fire and exploded. 23 were killed, and 314 injured. The explosion, which was caused when a vapor cloud moved through the polyethylene plant and ignited, registered 3.4 on the Richter scale. The fire took 10 hours to bring under control. Despite increased safety measures in the plant, which is still in operation today, there were subsequent fatalities in 1999 and 2000.
The most recent major industrial accident in the U.S. occurred on April 17, 2013. The West Fertilizer Company facility exploded, killing 15, injuring 150, and leaving 160 buildings damaged or destroyed. Investigations are still underway as to the exact cause of the explosion. But, it is well-documented that proper safety regulations were not followed. In a controversial move, President Obama recently reversed his decision not to allot federal aid to the town of West.
These are but a few of the disasters that have befallen American industrial facilities in our nation’s history. Each disaster is a tragedy in its own right. However, every new disaster usually brings about increased safety measures to protect workers and those in the surrounding areas. As well, when corporations are compelled to compensate victims due to a judgment awarded on behalf of the victims, those corporations and others like them tend to search for ways to avoid such loss in the future.
About the author
Joseph G. Macaluso is a personal injury lawyer practicing at the Bronx law firm of Macaluso & Fafinski, P.C. A graduate of Brooklyn Law School, Mr. Macaluso has been in private practice since 1990 with an exclusive focus on personal injury and medical malpractice. A member of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, he has served on the Legislative Committee of this organization and is also a member of the Bronx County Bar Association and has served on the Board of Directors of Bronx Legal Services.