100 years ago, Frances Perkins urged NFPA to champion workplace safety

Blog Post created by laurenbackstrom Employee on Jun 13, 2013


Recently, the 100th anniversary (May 13,

1913) that Frances Perkins gave her moving speech, "The Social and Human

Cost of Fire" at the NFPA Annual Meeting in New York City. This speech prompted the NFPA

Executive Committee to create the new “Committee on Safety to Life”. 

Their work of course led to what we now have as NFPA 101, +Life Safety Code+. 

Frances Perkins saw it with her own eyes. She was 30, a social worker living in New York City, and was visiting a friend for Saturday tea in Greenwich Village when the afternoon was split by the wail of sirens. She and her friends ran to the other side of Washington Square, and were among the throngs who witnessed the spectacle of the Triangle fire firsthand.

The fire, and the subsequent impassioned calls to action by labor reformers, had a profound impact on Perkins, and she vowed to take up the reform cause. She wasted little time; by the following year, she had become executive secretary of the Committee on Safety, a non-governmental body formed in the days following the Triangle fire to push for system-wide reforms for worker safety. It was as part of her extensive lobbying efforts that Perkins — who had also become an expert in the minutiae of building safety — addressed the 17th annual meeting of NFPA in May, 1913, in New York. Specifically, Perkins urged the organization to advocate for codes that protected not just buildings, but also the people who worked in them. NFPA created the Committee on Life Safety the following year, and in 1927 issued the Building Exits Code, the forerunner to today’s Life Safety Code®.

Perkins was named Secretary of Labor in 1933 by Franklin Roosevelt, becoming the first female Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.

Read excerpts from her speech  at the NFPA Annual Meeting.