In honor of National Women’s Month, I wanted to give a shout out to the women that helped improve working conditions for all of us. I’m referring to the ‘radium girls’ of the United States Radium Corporation. Knowledge about the products or chemicals used in daily routines in the workplace in the early 1900s was not readily available to those affected by them. For example, in today’s workplace, we would never think it would be permissible to work with the radium-infused paint these young women used to enhance the visibility of clock faces and gauges...at least not without proper PPE.1
In 1917, men who were exposed to the alpha particles given off by radium were supplied with lead aprons to protect them…while the women working with the radium-infused paint were given no protections and were even encouraged to lick their brushes for a finer point for the watch faces they were painting. The reasoning behind this was that the girls were not exposed to as much radium at once like the men who were moving substantial quantities throughout each day.1
At the time, radium infused products were thought to be safe, and even were promoted as health tonics and beauty aids, due to the 'shining glow' it gave to your skin. Thus, the girls and their families never suspected that when they began to fall ill, it was due to their occupational hazards.
When more women working in these factories came forward with illnesses, United States Radium Corporation tried to cover it up, saying that the girls were in perfect health, and any health problems were unrelated to radium exposure. But the number of girls who were sick continued to rise, and eventually, a group of them in New Jersey decided to fight back.2
The girls were not taken seriously until someone inside the company, Dr. Sabin A. Von Sochocky, a staunch supporter of the safety of using the radium paint, came forward to admit that he had lied the entire time, and that he, too, was ill from exposure.2 The radium industry tried to discredit both him and pathologist Harrison Martland who had developed a test proving the illness that plagued the women was due to their radium exposure.3
While many of these girls settled out of court or simply didn’t live to see the results of their fight against their unsafe working conditions, they are just a handful of the many people along the way that we must thank for the safety protocols in our facilities today. Without these protections, companies would still be willfully placing their employees in danger all for the sake of productivity.
If you would like to know more about the Radium Girls, I recommend The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women written by Kate Moore. There is also a movie based on the book, but we all know the book is typically more accurate when it comes to history.
Stockton, R. (2021, Oct 18). The Unbelievable True Story of America's Radium Girls. All That's Interesting. https://allthatsinteresting.com/radium-girls
Allan, L. (2019, Jun 14). 14 Horrific Facts About The Women Forced To Get Radium Poisoning For Their Job. Ranker. https://www.ranker.com/list/horrifying-facts-about-the-radium-girls/laura-allan
Vaughan, D. (n.d.). Radium Girls: The Women Who Fought for Their Lives in a Killer Workplace. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/story/radium-girls-the-women-who-fought-for-their-lives-in-a-killer-workplace