May Day: Four Industrial Disasters

posted on 5/1/13

haymarket affair

May Day–a holiday dedicated to recognizing and honoring the hard-working laborers of the world. By “world,” I of course mean the United Kingdom, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, France, Greece, Vietnam–you get the gist. These countries see the value in appreciating their most assiduous workers. The Land of the Free, however, can’t quite bring itself to honor the proletariat more than once a year despite the fact that May Day is rooted in Americanism. In 1886, police attempted to break up a public gathering during a strike on the eight-hour work day in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. In incredibly poor taste, an unidentified assailant threw a bomb at the police. They responded by shooting the workers and killing dozens of individuals. Three years later, after the Haymarket dust had settled, the Second International–an organization of socialist and labor parties–called for international demonstrations on the anniversary of the affair. The demonstrations prompted members of various working classes to advocate for making May Day an official holiday. Their call to action was mostly accepted around the world. Alas, America refused to officially recognize the holiday as part of the American tradition. President Obama attempted to offset May Day by reaffirming May 1st “Loyalty Day.” Rather than honoring individuals who get paid the least amount of work for some of the most difficult and dangerous jobs on May first, we officially get to spend the day proclaiming our loyalty to the Home of the Brave. It’s a shame that many Americans perceive May Day as a pinko holiday because countless industrial tragedies have happened and continue to happen on American soil.

Triangle Waist Company
triangle factory fire
So long as there are companies, there will be managers who fear dishonest employees. Working almost always comes with the caveat of proving to an authority figure that you are in fact completing designated tasks and doing so honorably. But in 1911, at the Triangle Waist Company, building trust wasn’t quite as simple as showing up to work on time. The company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, trusted their employees so little that they had several doors locked by the foreman to allow management to search employee’s purses before they clocked out. The decision proved fatal on the afternoon of March 25th when a fire broke out the factory’s eighth floor. Employees on the tenth floor were warned of the fire but, sadly, there were no telephones to contact the ninth floor staff. Flames prevented the only unlocked doors on the floor to be accessed by workers. Trapped employees sought refuge on a fire escape that was weak, possibly broken, and poorly mounted. The heat from the fire caused the metal to weaken and collapse, dropping twenty victims about 100 feet to their death. New York’s fire department at the time was unable to quell the flames because it had no ladders that could reach the building’s higher floors. Additionally, bodies on the sidewalks prevented firefighters from approaching the building. Roughly 150 workers, mostly female, died from either the flames, inhaling smoke, or jumping to their deaths. The tragic fire eventually led to improved safety standards and prompted the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.

Port Chicago Disaster
port chicago explosion
During World War II, thousands of American men volunteered to fight in fatigues overseas. They, of course, expected to be in danger while in battle. But soldiers who were stationed in the States in support roles often handled tasks that were just as dangerous as combat. In July of 1944, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in California served as the source of munition for American soldiers in the Pacific Theatre. The port had been expanded earlier that year to allow two ships to be loaded with bombs, shells, torpedoes, and other small munitions, all day long. Most of the men assigned to the dangerous task of loading munitions were in segregated African-American units because, you know, racism in America. The units were not properly trained in how to handle munitions and most safety standards were bypassed to quickly meet demanding loading schedules. On July 17th, roughly 300 men were on the pier when a munitions ship blew up during loading. The powerful explosion was felt over a hundred miles away and killed 320 enlisted men (more than half of which were African American). After clearing the debris, African American soldiers were ordered to continue loading ships with munitions without any new safety procedures to prevent additional explosions. White officers who had survived the blast, on the other hand, were given a month’s leave. Fifty African American sailors refused to load ammunition without unchanged safety procedures and were tried for mutiny. All men were found guilty and were initially sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Two years after the disaster, the fifty alleged mutineers were released from prison.

Georgia Sugar Refinery Explosion
georgia sugar refinery fire
Dust off your lab coats and goggles, friends, because this story begins with a lesson in science. Have you heard of a dust explosion? Twenty minutes ago, I had not. A dust explosion is the rapid ignition of dust particles in an enclosed space and it is a sobering concern for mills and refineries. Coal dust oxidizes quickly and can be ignited easily–which is one of the many reasons coal mining is so damn dangerous. Coal dust isn’t the only substance that is prone to exploding–sugar, powdered milk, and flour dust can blow up if enough is in the air and there is a source of ignition (like, say, static electricity). On February 7, 2008, witnesses saw flames exploding out of the Imperial Sugar refinery after sugar collected and blew up. Flames shot up a few stories high and continued to burn for about a week. The explosion began in a building that stored sugar before being packaged. The factory’s outdated construction is thought to have helped the building burn for so long. The sugar refinery explosion killed fourteen, injured forty, and led to no further safety regulations beyond the Occupational Safety and Health Administration warning 30,000 employees of similar companies to the danger of dust explosions.

Deepwater Horizon
deepwater horizon spill
Ah, the bittersweet energy industry. The most profitable industry in the history of money, yet its CEOs can’t quite figure out how to spend some of those bills on safety measures to prevent spills, explosions, leaks, and all the other disasters that dump on mother nature. Enter: the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. On April 10, 2010, high-pressure methane gas built up, expanded into the drilling rig, ignited and exploded. Of the 126 crew members on board, 11 died instantly. As if 11 deaths and dozens of injuries isn’t bad enough, the explosion created an ecological disaster in the form of the largest oil spill off American waters. Twelve days after the explosion, an oil leak was spotted coming from the water around the former rig site. British Petroleum, the rig’s owners, loosely estimated that the flow rate of the spill was between 1,000 and 5,000 barrels per day. But can we ever really trust the company responsible for the worst accidental marine oil spill to be honest and straightforward with the American people? The answer to that question is an unequivocal no, we cannot. A group of scientists and engineers from the government, universities, and research institutions, known as the Flow Rate Technical Group, estimated the leak to be closer to 62,000 barrels per day. BP, of course, publicly denied the FRTG’s figure. Thanks to some poor BP vigilante worker and some leaked e-mails, we now know that the company internally agreed with the FRTG figure. In July, the wellhead was finally capped but by that time almost 70,000 square miles of ocean had been directly screwed by the leaked oil. The damage on marine species in the area is truly depressing. The oil contained methane which created huge pockets of “dead zones” that suffocated marine life. And the sea creatures that managed to survive “dead zones” suffered dismal fate. After the spill, dead baby dolphins washed up on American shorelines at ten times the normal rate. Fisherman began catching fish with lesions and sores. To Forrest Gump’s infinite dismay, half of the shrimp population caught in 2012 were found without eyes or eye sockets. The list literally goes on and on but the hobbyist marine biologist within me is far too depressed to continue. Drill, baby, drill.

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