10 Business Scandals That Changed The Way Things Are Done

There are so many aspects of our everyday lives that we take for granted, and without ever asking why? From the sometimes-maddening plastic wrappers on our pill bottles and the way emergency exit doors function, to more intangible concepts like our right to a safe working environment, such commonplaces invite us to ask: Where did these things come from? Sadly, these measures and innovations weren't proactively created for society's benefit; they were often reactions to corporate negligence, or malfeasance, or simple mistakes, that had dire consequences. 

Some of these we know well; there were, of course, going to be widespread changes after the Titanic disaster and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire - but exactly what reforms did those tragedies spur? Other business scandals that changed the world did so in lesser-known ways, such as the Victorian catastrophe that spurred the invention of those emergency exit doors. Read on to learn more about important business scandals (both the well-known and the forgotten) that changed the world. 

  • After 'Titanic,' More Lifeboats Were Mandated And An ‘International Ice Patrol’ Was Formed
    Photo: Keystone Press / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Titanic was famous even before its ill-fated maiden voyage. It and its sister ships, the Olympic and the Britannic, were constructed to be the best and biggest ships at sea. They were more luxurious than their competition - across every traveling class - and safer, too. But, as we all know, the “unsinkable” Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, and the tragedy inspired several changes to maritime law. 

    Almost immediately after the sinking, American senator William Alden Smith began investigating the accident. A few weeks later, the British Board of Trade began its own inquiry. Both investigations found that existing maritime regulations were outdated, and put forth several proposals for improvement. 

    Ultimately, the Titanic disaster resulted in several procedural changes that are commonplace today. There is now a permanent ice patrol that monitors dangerous waters, and the Radio Act of 1912 ensured ships would always be equipped with trained wireless operators. Additionally, pretty much all of the existing lifeboat regulations were updated.

    The Titanic had only been equipped with enough lifeboats for half of its passengers, and boarding them was so chaotic that many boats left without being at full capacity. Now, all ships must be equipped with enough lifeboats for all passengers, passengers are assigned to lifeboats prior to departure, and crews must participate in frequent lifeboat drills.

  • The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Triggered An Avalanche Of Worker Protection Laws
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 workers, the majority of whom were women. Working conditions in the early 20th century left a lot to be desired, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a prime example. The Asch Building in New York City's Greenwich Village, where the factory occupied the eighth, ninth, and 10th floors, was constructed of steel and iron, and thus believed to be fireproof. What that descriptor failed to take into account, however, were the horrid working conditions imposed by factory owners. 

    Workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory labored 13 hours a day and were denied breaks. Additionally, workers were packed into close quarters, had access to just one fire escape, and were surrounded by scraps of flammable fabric. The building also wasn’t equipped with fire extinguishers or sprinklers - just buckets of water. When the fire broke out, the women were trapped, leading to a panic. Workers either perished in the fire or sustained fatal injuries by jumping out of the building or down the elevator shaft in attempts to escape. 

    The fire led to sweeping changes to labor laws in New York and later across the US. As a result of relentless lobbying from activists, several laws were put into place that mandated safe working conditions and employment regulations for women and children. Later, New York’s new labor legislation was made into federal law with the New Deal.

  • The Victoria Hall Disaster Cost The Lives Of 183 Children And Led To Emergency Exit Laws
    Photo: G. Julien / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Victoria Hall Disaster Cost The Lives Of 183 Children And Led To Emergency Exit Laws

    The outward-opening push-bar emergency exit doors located in pretty much every public building can be traced back to a single incident in 1883. On June 16, 1883, the Fays, a pair of entertainers who performed magic tricks, seances, and other amusements, put on a show at Victoria Hall in the Northern England city of Sunderland. The performance was geared largely toward children, and there were more than 1,000 in the audience. 

    At the end of the show, the Fays announced that children with certain tickets would receive free toys. This led to a frenzied rush toward the stage; with few adults around to help distribute the toys in an orderly fashion, the rush quickly became dangerous.

    As the children raced down the gallery, they found there was only one doorway through which they could exit. The door had been partially opened and then bolted, leaving a space about 2 feet wide that was so narrow that only one child could fit through at a time. Hundreds of children tried to force their way through, leading to a stampede. In total, 183 children died from being crushed underneath the weight of the crowd. 

    Though investigations into the disaster weren’t successful - the person responsible for the bolted door was never identified - Parliament passed laws that required places of public entertainment to have sufficient emergency exits that could open outwards, leading to the ubiquitous push-bar emergency exits we see today.

  • The 1982 ‘Tylenol Murders’ Led To Tamper-Resistant Packaging
    Photo: Surveillance photo / Boston Magazine / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The 1982 ‘Tylenol Murders’ Led To Tamper-Resistant Packaging

    Today, trying to open a new bottle of Tylenol (or any other pain-relieving medication) can be frustrating; seals are hard to peel, the foil tops never seem to come off on the first try, and the elaborate packaging can seem like unnecessary waste. However, the customary safety seals on medicine bottles weren’t always the status quo. In 1982, the still-unsolved Tylenol murders led to sweeping changes in the way medicine bottles are packaged. 

    Over just a few days, seven people in the greater Chicago area died after taking Tylenol. Investigators quickly discovered that each of them had unknowingly taken a capsule laced with cyanide. Almost immediately upon this discovery, Johnson & Johnson recalled more than 31 million Tylenol bottles. Several more contaminated bottles were found in Chicago, though there were no more victims.

    Prior to this incident, there were no safety seals on medicine bottles. Johnson & Johnson quickly announced a host of new practices that would make it abundantly clear to consumers whether their products had been tampered with.

    Johnson & Johnson also introduced the caplet, a pill coated in gelatin that is harder to tamper with than the capsule pills of the past which could be easily opened and re-closed. In 1989, the FDA announced regulations that standardized Johnson & Johnson’s tamper-proof procedures, which are par for the course today.

  • After Thalidomide Caused Deformities, Animal Testing Was No Longer Sufficient To Ensure Safety

    In 1956, thalidomide, originally intended for use as a sedative or tranquilizer, was approved for over-the-counter sale. However, the testing that led to the drug’s public approval has since been deemed hugely insufficient; the drug was largely approved because researchers found it impossible to give test animals a lethal dose of the drug. Beyond its original uses, thalidomide was used to ease cold and flu symptoms as well as morning sickness in expectant mothers, despite the fact that there were no tests done to prove the drug was safe for pregnant women.

    Within just a few years, the drug was being used around the world for various treatments, and thousands of women took the drug to ease nausea. When these women later gave birth to babies with serious defects, including underdeveloped limbs, the connection to thalidomide was not immediately clear. Because of this, it took several years for any action to be taken. It is estimated that in this time, 10,000 affected children - some of whom did not survive infancy - were born. As of 2011, about 3,000 were still alive. 

    As a result of the thalidomide cases, new drug approval processes were put in place around the world. Animal testing is no longer sufficient to approve drugs for human use, and any drugs marketed to pregnant women must provide evidence that they’re safe for pregnancy. Today, thalidomide is still prescribed in certain cases (it’s proven successful in treating symptoms of leprosy, for example) but is strictly regulated.

  • The ‘Radium Girls’ Successfully Pressed One Of History’s First Occupational Safety Lawsuits
    Photo: Kate Moore / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    The ‘Radium Girls’ Successfully Pressed One Of History’s First Occupational Safety Lawsuits

    In 1898, Marie and Paul Curie discovered a new element: radium. Its potential uses were limitless, but as the United States entered World War I, it was notably used to make luminous watches that soldiers could easily read in the field. As the men went off to war, the manufacturing of these watches fell to women. At the time, the job of a "radium girl" was sought after - it was well-paid, skilled labor, and widely viewed as a valued contribution to the American war effort. However, the women's exposure to radium proved harmful - in some cases, lethal.

    One of the most notable effects of prolonged radium exposure was “radium jaw” - the deterioration of jawbones. In the 1920s, dentists began seeing more and more women with aching teeth and radium jaw, but that wasn’t the only side effect. They also suffered from ulcers and tumors all over their bodies.

    As more radium girls became ill, the companies that employed them fiercely denied any responsibility, going so far as to bury their own internal investigations that proved radium exposure was harmful. One company, United States Radium, settled a dispute out of court in 1928, but because they refused to acknowledge wrongdoing, nothing changed. It wasn’t until 1938, roughly two decades after radium girls first began working, that Catherine Wolfe Donohue, a woman who was then dying from radium exposure, successfully won her case against another radium company, Radium Dial Co. 

    Though Radium Dial Co. filed numerous appeals, the court’s decision stood, setting the precedent that companies are responsible for the health and safety of their employees. The case also led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which ensures employers provide employees with working conditions free from health and safety hazards.