Friday, November 16, 2012

The Radium Girls - Profits Before People

Have you ever heard of the Radium Girls?

Around 1917, women were hired in radium factories to paint watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint. The paintbrushes would lose their shape after a few strokes, so employers encouraged the women to re-shape the brushes with their mouths. For fun, the women painted their fingernails and even their faces and teeth. Hey, it was glow-in-the-dark and that’s FUN! The women believed the paint was safe.

Here’s the rub—the U.S. Radium Corporation who hired these women were hip to the fact that radium is not safe to ingest or to smear all over skin. In fact, the chemists carefully avoided contact with the toxic substance, using lead screens, masks and tongs to handle it. Literature on the injurious effects of radium had been distributed throughout the medical community but this didn’t stop the factories from hiring women and using them as expendable employees. These factories could have easily provided the women with the necessary masks and gloves but they didn’t. Masks, gloves and tongs would have cost the radium companies money. They even encouraged the women to put the paintbrush tips in their mouths—KNOWING the radium was toxic!

Was this a case of employers wanting to make employees sick? Doubtful. It’s more likely they just wanted product to sell. Glow-in-the-dark watches were used in the military and money was to be made. So what if women got sick? It wasn’t their problem. Profit was their bottom line.

Women DID get sick. Many women later suffered from anemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw—also known as radium jaw.  Radium and other watch-dial companies denied the radium caused these ills. In an effort to keep this information from the public, doctors, dentists and researchers complied with requests from companies to not release the damning data. At the urging of the radium companies, workers’ deaths were blamed on syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases in an effort to not only distract the public from the poisoning but to smear the reputations of the women who died.
In 1922, Grace Fryer, a woman who once worked in the plant grew concerned when her teeth started to loosen and eventually fall out. Her jaw became swollen and inflamed. A primitive X-ray machine revealed serious bone decay and her jawbone was honeycombed with small holes in a random pattern. The doctor suggested her condition was a direct result of her exposure to radium.  Fryer decided to sue U.S. Radium but it took two years to find a lawyer willing to take on the case. Five women who worked in the factory, dubbed "The Radium Girls" joined the suit. Their case set precedents including a baseline of provable suffering.

As mentioned in my last blog about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where women who worked under extreme sweatshop conditions plunged to their deaths to escape an inferno, this horrific and true story also resulted in labor laws and legal precedents. The Radium Girls case enabled the right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse. Industrial safety standards were demonstrably enhanced for many decades as a result.

I used to sell industrial chemicals. The company I worked for often complained about the EPA and their pesky rules—rules in place to keep the air and water clean. Their beef was primarily about the fees associated with EPA testing of certain chemicals. Companies who distribute these chemicals must cover part of the fees. This chemical company would have gladly looked the other way so they could make more money selling products that were damaging and unhealthy to the environment, their own employees who had to demonstrate the chemicals and the maintenance crews who handled the product—just so they would have a little more money in their pocket.

Without labor laws and unions, employers have proved that employee safety is not always a concern. We know that every employer isn’t evil but enough of them have proved that labor laws, regulation and worker safety are necessary in order to protect the rights of employees.

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  1. Surely there must have been some women who were married, I wonder if they had reproductive issued too. Very sad to consider.

  2. This is a good example why I just don't understand the Libertarian point of view. Corporations have proven that they will not do the right thing if it means less money.