How Did The Radium Girls Change Health & Safety In The UK?

Industry News By Sarah

There has never been a point in the history of work where health and safety have not mattered, but the level of priority it has been allowed has been sorely lacking until the rise of occupational safety.

Whilst today health and safety consultants take a proactive approach that is focused on risk assessments and trying to stop as many foreseeable accidents from occurring as is feasibly possible, earlier health and safety protocols were often written in blood.

One of the most famous, influential and harrowing cases of this was that of the Radium Girls, several watch dial painters who were amongst the first to make a notably successful legal claim against their employers and set the course to change health and safety in the process.

Radioactive Views On Radioactivity

Much has been written about the story of the Radium Girls, but it starts with the radioactive material itself and its uses. 

The radioactive material radium was discovered by Marie Curie in 1898, which thanks to its connection to very early experimental treatments for cancer led to a dangerous fad period.

Radium mania led to a range of utterly reckless products with radioactive material in them, most notably the Radithor solution that claimed the life of amateur golfer and socialite Eben Byers.

One of its legitimate uses was in the painting of watch dials, which helped them glow in the dark and made them useful for soldiers operating at night.

Several radium dial companies were set up, but the most important one for occupational health was the US Radium Corporation, which like other dial painting firms hired young women to delicately paint the dials using a technique that required them to touch the radium paint against their mouth to shape the brush.

They had been encouraged by their management to do this and had not been told about the true dangers of radium, known as early as 1906 and the subject of serious questions by 1915.

However, these hypothetical dangers became very real in 1923 when a dial painter died horribly. 

The next year, 12 more had died and 50 were seriously ill. Inexplicably, some were claimed to have died of the sexually transmitted infection syphilis to smear them and cover up the true reason for their illness.

Legal action to get compensation began in 1927, but many of the radium dial companies attempted to frustrate the compensation and legal process in a disgusting attempt to drag out the proceedings until the plaintiffs succumbed.

The first settlement was in 1928, although some of the cases had to be won multiple times and were frustrated for so long that it took until 1939 to finally settle the issue.

It created a precedent for corporate responsibility both in the United States and elsewhere. 

Whilst several countries such as Germany and the UK did have the right to compensation for personal injuries enshrined in law, actually claiming was difficult.

 

The Radium Girls was an example that was too high profile to ignore and has since become a case study for the importance of PPE and the right to know about potential industrial dangers.

 

Radium continued to be used as late as the 1970s, but with stringent testing and PPE, no deaths were reported after 1939.


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