Many people do not realize how much we owe to the dial painters in 1920’s radium studios for our modern workers’ compensation laws. The idea that workers should be protected from harm and that companies were liable for damages to their health is a fairly modern one. Protection from worker exploitation was increased in the 1930’s due to the cases of young women who would become known as the Radium Girls because of the health problems they suffered due to radium poisoning.
When Marie Curie died from leukemia caused by her exposure to radium, her death was considered tragic, but also a sacrifice in the name of scientific advancement. When Mollie Maggia died after working at US Radium Corp in New Jersey, her death was written off as syphilis, and the company suffered no consequences. Dozens of girls working with radium infused paint would die and dozens more suffer from a myriad of health problems before the government stepped in to stop the exploitation of young working women.
The case of the Radium Girls shines a spotlight on the way our society has historically valued – or failed to value – people of different classes. It was not until the deaths of two prominent men that the concerns of the girls who worked with radium were considered by anyone with the power to do anything about it. These women had to fight multiple battles to have their health problems recognized, to have them attributed to radium, to have the companies held responsible, to receive compensation, and to see laws changed. It was a slow process that many women died before seeing concluded.
What amount of risk is reasonable in employment? Do higher wages make these risks acceptable? How much responsibility does a company have for disclosing risks to employees and protecting them from harm? These were all questions that had not been adequately answered in the early 20th century.
Historically, employers had not taken responsibility for the health of their employees. Paying wages was the only obligation they had, but this was slowly changing in the early 1900’s. The first workers’ compensation laws had offered limited accident protection to men working in the dangerous work of mines, factories, and railroads. Over time, changes were made and protections were added, but radium was nowhere to be found in the workers’ compensation laws of the 1920’s.
First struggling to find doctors who would label their condition for what it was, the women who worked with radium then had to find lawyers who would help them hold their employers liable. Since radium wasn’t specifically mentioned in the existing legislation, it was a long battle to have the women’s condition recognized under the law. Lawyers motivated by justice with the ability to work without pay were needed because most of the women were already bankrupted by their medical expenses.
In my new book, Luminous, Catherine Donohue battles with Radium Dial in Ottawa,Illinois, for radium poisoning compensation. Based on her true story, this biographical novel takes readers into the dial painting studio to watch the slow poisoning process, into the hospitals where the women fight for their lives, and into the courtroom where they fight for their rights.
By the end of the 1930’s companies had lost some radium poisoning cases, but they continued to exploit workers who were none the wiser for several more years. The history of the Radium Girls is heartbreaking, and we have them to thank for many of the protections against worker exploitation that we have today.
Universal Amazon Link for Luminous: mybook.to/luminous
Samantha’s Blog: https://samanthawilcoxson.blogspot.com/
Meet Samantha Wilcoxson
Samantha Wilcoxson is a history enthusiast and avid traveler. Her published works include the Plantagenet Embers series with novels and novellas that explore the Wars of the Roses and early Tudor era. Luminous is her first foray into 20th century American history, but she suspects that it will not be her last. Samantha enjoys exploring the personal side of historic events and creating emotive, inspiring stories.
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