I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading Radium Girls: The dark history of America’s shining women. I’ve been trying to expand my reading genres, and this sounded like a look back into history from a working woman’s perspective.
There’s really two stories at play. The traumatic, gruesome and somber story of deceit in the American workplace paired with an inspirational story of bravery and friendship. It’s a long read (I listened and it was 16 hours), and quite detailed, but a story that has been lost over the generations.
In the early 1920s, women were hired to paint numbers on watches and clocks using a radium based paint. The radium made the painted numbers glow, so the watch faces could be seen in the dark. It was a high paying job so naturally a popular one among the women. While the workers were told the paint was safe, over time it poisoned their bodies, causing a slow and painful death.
The companies who employed these women lied and hid the health hazards associated with radium. The women’s health deteriorated as the poison slowly ate away at their bones and bodies. As the women became sicker and sicker, they banded together to confront their employers.
Their case made history as it was the first time employers were held responsible for the health of their employees. The women’s persistence and fight for justice led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The agency reduced workplace deaths from 14,000 annually to just 4,500. It’s amazing that before the 1930s and 40s, there were no health regulations employers were required to follow. That doesn’t seem that long ago…