The Radium Girls and How They Made A Difference in Workplace Health and Safety
Category: News and Updates , • March 15, 2023

The story of the Radium Girls is important in understanding current labor laws and regulations.

The bravery of these women forever changed how we work — and its effects are still being felt to this day. With their fortitude, they helped set an example that it’s possible to make a difference when it comes to protecting ourselves while on the job.

But there is also an unfortunate history attached.

Introducing the Radium Girls

An old black and white photo of some of the "Radium Girls" painting watch faces using the hazardous element.
An old black and white photo of some of the “Radium Girls” painting watch faces using the hazardous element in a factory.

In the early 1920s, young American women had an impact on our history when they were poisoned by radium while working at watch factories in New Jersey and Illinois.

“Radium was all the rage. A glowing radium watch was a must-have item,” according to the National Museum of American History. “In factories, young women painted face dials with radioactive material. Unaware that the paint was harmful, they would place the brush tip on their lips to achieve a fine point.”

Unfortunately, because their employers denied that radium was dangerous to their health, the tragic death of countless workers ensued. These brave young women soon came to be known as the “Radium Girls,” as they fought for worker protections after suffering a variety of radium-related maladies.

This fight ultimately resulted in new governmental worker safety laws being created, making this point in time a significant milestone for labor rights.

Additionally, as radium has a half-life of approximately 1,600 years, these women’s remains are still radioactive.

The Legacy of the Radium Girls

Despite unbearable pain and physical deterioration, the courage and tenacity of the young women affected by radium poisoning served as a turning point in workplace safety regulations.

By suing their employers to seek justice — many of whom did so even while bedridden and dying — they brought much-needed attention to the lack of safety measures that endangered all workers’ health. After all, they wanted to protect the remaining women they had worked beside in the watch factories.

“The legacy of the Radium Girls can’t be understated,” Britannica explains. “Their case was among the first in which a company was held responsible for the health and safety of its employees, and it led to a variety of reforms as well as to the creation of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

The State of Workplace Health & Safety Today

The story of the Radium Girls perfectly illustrates how far we have come in terms of workplace safety laws.

These suffering workers brought attention to the issue of workplace safety and new laws were passed; today, those same laws are enforced by OSHA, along with industrial hygienists and other professionals.

That being said, it is also important to remember that there are still risks associated with certain types of work and modern technologies can be helpful in detecting them.

To ensure you are protected while working on-site for a remediation or restoration job, reach out to qualified industrial hygienists. For example, Dave Luce and Shannon Luce with Luce Air Quality are industrial hygienists who can help you to ensure your well-being while in the field.

Otherwise, let us never forget the legacy left by the brave Radium Girls. Their story shows that a unified voice can make a big change for better safety at places of internal employment.

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