We live in an age when we seem determined to unlearn painful truths that were revealed in decades past by courage and determination, overcoming entrenched forces that sought to cover up horrors inflicted upon some workers.
The story of the Radium Girls is a story that I think we've tried hard to forget, a story we'd like to think can't happen anymore, not in our country. And it's a story that reminds us that the people who clamor for less regulation of the workplace tend to not be the people who pay the price for such deregulation.
A hundred years ago, delicate young women found lucrative employment painting watch dials with radium paint. Glowing watch dials were part of the war effort for World War I, dontcha know, and these girls felt patriotic doing their painstaking work, which involved shaping the brush to a fine point using their lips and teeth. The brush that they then dipped into radium paint, painted the numbers on the dial, and then put back in their mouths.
They were sometimes called Ghost Girls, because they began to literally glow in the dark. And this was at a time when small doses of radium were touted as being healthy.
So when their teeth started falling out, and horrid bleeding ulcers filled their mouths, and their jaws started to crumble, it was not immediately obvious as to the cause. And the companies making those watch dials denied and denied and denied that it was the radium paint that was causing these young women to turn into walking corpses.
Think it can't happen anymore? Take a look at my earlier link to the story about Case Farms and how they (allegedly) maimed workers in a pretty callous manner, all in the name of profit.
The story of the Radium Girls features young women poisoned in such a way that their jaws literally rotted away and grotesque tumors bloomed all over their bodies. And their employers denied, for years and years, that the radium these young women had worked with--had literally ingested while making glowing watch dials--had anything to do with their jaws falling off and their glowing, cancerous bones.
Hell, one of the companies said it was syphilis that had rotted away the poor girl's jaw and teeth, rather than their glowing wonder element.
It took years for these dying and disfigured young women to get the truth out, because, even as they were having their faces and their bodies turned into Swiss cheese, these companies continued to employ other young women to do the same work and poison themselves in the same manner. And it took a courageous lawyer, working pro bono, along with a cadaverous young woman testifying from her goddamned deathbed, to force the truth out.
We need to remember the courageous women who fought to tell the truth. And we need to honor them by staying vigilant and honest and knowing bullshit when its fed to us.
Our current Workers Comp system is far from perfect. It is a never ending process to create and maintain a system that tries to make whole or at least compensate those injured or made ill by their work, and to provide meaningful financial incentives to employers to operate in a safe manner. I believe it is not in our collective interests to create perverse financial incentives that encourage unsafe workplaces or that leave workers vulnerable and unprotected.
We need to remember why we have Workers Compensation, as aggravating and imperfect as it often is. We need to keep the system honest, as much as we can, and strive to keep errors and outright fraud from eroding this vital system.
We owe it to the Radium Girls.