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After the New York Times ran a searing two-part investigation into the exploitation and job-related health problems of the state’s nail-salon workers earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered emergency measures to protect them and appointed a special review panel to recommend long-term reforms. The Times series painted a portrait of an immigrant workforce laboring in dangerous conditions and for pitiful wages — in some cases paying salon owners for the opportunity to make $10, or less, a day.
Nail salons, a growth industry across the nation, appear to be little more than brightly lighted sweatshops, according to the series, throwbacks to a time when immigrants, especially immigrant women, worked long hours for low pay in unsafe, unsanitary conditions.
In the early 20th century, capital pretty much operated as it saw fit. From the slaughterhouses of Chicago, which inspired Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, to the garment factories of New York, factory owners had no need to answer to regulators or inspectors. There were no protections for workers who suffered job injuries, no safety net for families when the breadwinner lost a job. Those who raised objections to the status quo were liable to find themselves without a job or on the wrong end of a police officer’s truncheon.
But conditions began to change with the rise of progressive politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and the growing force of labor unions and social reform movements. Many of these crucial reforms originated in New York, which became a progressive leader in workplace safety and social welfare reform. The state passed laws that set the standard for later federal rulings. The Times series, however, read as if a century of labor improvements had been lost.
Some salon workers were found to be suffering from health ailments that could be related to chemicals they use — just as textile workers in the early 20th century developed tillness from the dust and fibers they inhaled on the factory floor.
New York in the early 20thcentury was home to a rising generation of workers and advocates ready to challenge the laissez-faire dogma of the previous century. The Women’s Trade Union League, a fledgling organization, agitated on behalf of the immigrant women garment workers. In 1909, the union organized a general strike against hundreds of garment factories. Thousands of young women, many of them Jewish and Italian immigrants or the children of immigrants, walked picket lines. Though the strike eventually ran out of steam, the women had made their point. The old way of doing business was over.
But the critical turning point was two years later. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, on the upper floors of a Greenwich Village building. The workers, largely young immigrant women, sought to flee the inferno, but the owners had locked the doors. There were no fire extinguishers, no sprinklers. A crowd had gathered below and they watched as some of the women jumped to their deaths. When it was over, 146 workers had died.
The Triangle fire ignited mass demonstrations and demands for not only increased workplace regulations, but also for a broader reordering of the relationship between government and the marketplace. After a four-year investigation, a special state commission produced four massive reports that laid the groundwork for the modern regulatory state. The reports created a template for many federal rules passed during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The commission went well beyond calls for stricter safety measures. The New York Legislature eventually passed measures limiting the work week to 54 hours for women and children, mandating a minimum daily wage of $2 for workers on the state’s canals and requiring employers to grant workers a day off for every seven worked. These and other laws set off a larger debate in New York that led to passage of a new workers’ compensation law and a state-mandated minimum wage.
Frances Perkins, who served on the commission, went on to become Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary — and the first woman cabinet member. If she were alive today, she would likely wonder if the commission’s work was in vain. For she surely would see in the lives of New York’s nail-salon workers the same injustices she and her commission colleagues sought to remediate a century ago.
The salon workers, the vast majority of them Korean immigrants, are tethered to the workplace, working 12 hours a day, six and even seven days a week. New York legislators and activists who supported workplace reforms after the Triangle fire thought they were regulating away such gross exploitation.
Perkins, a social worker trained in the settlement-house tradition of the early 20thcentury, made sure that the politicians on the commission saw first-hand the conditions under which industrial workers – including children younger than 10 – labored. The panel’s two legislative leaders were state Senator Robert Wagner, who became a U.S. senator and a champion of the New Deal, and Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith, who became a four-term New York governor and the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1928.
Both Wagner and Smith were products of the sidewalks of New York. But even they had been shocked by the working conditions they saw, including tenement apartments where women and girls did piecework for scandalously low wages and without any safety protections. The New York Times reported at the time “the eating of meals in rooms filled with poisonous dust and gases was found to be a custom” in many factories. The New York Times reported earlier this month that “some of the chemicals in nail products are known to cause cancer; others have been linked to abnormal fetal development, miscarriages and other harm to reproductive health.”
Perkins insisted that Wagner, a German immigrant raised in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, saw for himself what passed as a fire escape in one factory: an ice-covered ladder, accessible through a hole in the wall and 12-feet too short. The lawmakers saw factory floors where children worked until they passed out or where workers put in 12-hour shifts seven days a week.
The plight of the New York manicurists as described in the Times is a serious problem, but perhaps especially so because they work in a state that had set the standards for workplace safety a century ago. In announcing his emergency measures, Cuomo noted, “New York State has a long history of confronting wage theft and unfair labor practices head-on, and today … we are aggressively following in that tradition.” He promised the state would “not stand idly by as workers are … robbed of their most basic rights.”
Those are fine sentiments, and the governor is right to cite New York’s record as an advocate for workers, particularly immigrant workers who often have no recourse when their wages aren’t paid or they are forced to work in unsafe conditions.
Yet the question remains: How in a state with a long history of worker protection did it come to this?
Which leads to a second question: How many other services that rely on immigrants are routinely exploiting workers, often in plain sight?
Perhaps somebody can persuade Cuomo and his colleagues to follow in the footsteps of Perkins and investigate exploitation and injustice for themselves.
If they do, they should watch their step. It’s dangerous out there.
The fire, which is believed to have broken out on the 52 floor before spreading, was quickly brought under control by local fire-fighters. Despite terrifying images of falling debris, whipped by winds, there have been no reported deaths – or even injuries.
It is a testament to the evolution of skyscraper construction, often cited as the forefront of architectural design.
Since 9/11 architects have sought – more than ever – to improve safety and evacuation possibilities in these tall builders.
Skyscrapers in downtown Detroit, Michigan
The dangers of skyscraper fires
Fires in high-rise buildings present a number of significant challenges to fire crews. Firstly, and most obviously, the sheer height of these buildings means that crews’ water hoses are often unable to reach the flames.
The average fire hose can spray up to 50ft, but a high-rise building is defined as anything from 75ft upwards – and in the case of the Dubai tower over 1,000ft.
Fire-fighters therefore have to enter the building, locating the entrances, exits, stairwells, before they can even begin fighting the outbreak. These minutes could allow the fire to spread further and prevent fire crews from knowing the severity or location of the outbreak.
A general view of the skyscrapers in Canary Wharf
Ok, so how are fires fought at such heights?
To combat this, engineers and architects design the buildings so that fires are contained, limiting the spread of flames, gas or smoke in a process known as “fire compartmentation”.
The rough rule of thumb is that any outbreak should be able to burn itself out without external intervention, and without the building collapsing, allowing for the evacuation of occupants above and below the fire.
This strategy means that (for example) elderly or disabled residents can be “defended in place” when they are 200 stories up. It also leads to the counter-intuitive notion that were you to be in a supertall building during a fire, your best course of action may be to stay put.
Skyscrapers could double in size
‘Fire compartmentation’ strategy
Building are constructed with fire-resistant features, such as automated doors – which close when a fire is detected – or barriers throughout floors that are designed to slow fires.
Among the most dangerous high-rise fire outbreak occur in office blocks, where large open-plan floors allow flames to spread easily and terrifyingly quickly.
Many skyscrapers are constructed like metal boxes within metal boxes (although this is changing as more innovative design becomes widespread) in buildings such as these however, each ‘box’ is protected by fire-proofed material that helps contain the outbreak.
Skyscraper construction in the wake of 9/11
Freedom Tower, the building that now occupies a site just north of the Twin Towers, contains a number of specific features as a direct result of the previous buildings collapse. These features indicate the changing attitude to design.
A dedicated staircase for the emergency crew runs up the core of the building. This core, pressurised and protected by 3ft extra-strong concrete walls, combats fire-fighters being unable to access the flames.
The design of the Burji Kalifa, a 168-floor tower also in Dubai, was affected by 9/11. In the case of a fire occupants travel to designated ‘refuge areas’ on each floor before taking lifts (named ‘lifeboats’) down to exits on the ground floor.
This innovation directly contravenes traditional wisdom that you should never take a lift during a fire as the electronics will be affected by the water needed to fight the flames.
China is home to over half the 124 skyscrapers now under construction worldwide
Information is vital
One of the key lessons learnt from the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001 was the scarcity of information that the emergency crews had access to. Despite the building being full-fitted with smoke alarms, security cameras and air condition systems none of these were set up to deliver information to the fire-fighters.
Now technology has been developed to allow crews to access this information.
OTTAWA, ONTARIO -- Canada's Building Trades unions (CBTU) have and will continue to make a significant contribution to the infrastructure that keeps Canadians safely working and living in their communities. Yet, the contribution by CBTU is often forgotten as the conversation steers towards money and worthiness by anti-union forces that seek to take away a valuable livelihood for 500,000 proud Canadians who belong to construction unions and in turn pay taxes and contribute to their local communities in a variety of forms. Today, in celebration of labour, the CBTU is launching www.buildingastrongercanada.com .
The Medina, OH based RPM International, makers of Rust-Oleum and other specialty paints, has agreed to spend nearly $800 million to fund a trust that would resolve asbestos-based personal injury claims against the company. The settlement is less than the $1.17 billion a judge had previously suggested they could owe and still needs to be approved by a U.S. bankruptcy court.
Details of the agreement are provided by MarketWatch:
Under the terms of the agreement in principle, a trust will be established under Section 524(g) of the United States Bankruptcy Code for the benefit of current and future asbestos personal injury claimants, funded as follows:
• Upon the plan becoming effective, the trust will be funded with $450 million in cash;
• On or before the second anniversary of the effective date of the plan, an additional $102.5 million in cash, RPM stock or a combination thereof (at the discretion of RPM in this and all subsequent cases) will be deposited into the trust;
• On or before the third anniversary of the effective date of the plan, an additional $120 million in cash, RPM stock or a combination thereof will be deposited into the trust; and
• On or before the fourth anniversary of the effective date of the plan, a final payment of $125 million in cash, RPM stock or a combination thereof will be deposited into the trust.
The settlement hinges on a reorganization plan for Bondex and Specialty Products, owned by RPM. As Bloomberg explains, bankrupt companies can win immunity from future lawsuits by setting up trusts such as the one agreed upon here.