The Radium Girls: A ‘compelling read’

By Judge Dale Tipps, Murfreesboro

Dale TippsMy reading list is pretty eclectic – recent authors include Thornton Wilder, Kazuo Ishituro, Chinua Achebe, and Jane Austen.

Although I find workers’ compensation law interesting (which I suppose should be reassuring to those of you who appear in my court), I don’t go looking for work comp topics when selecting my next read. However, I occasionally run across a book that relates in some way to the work we do. One such recent book was The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore.

Near the end of World War I, American companies began selling clocks and watches with dials that had glow-in-the-dark numbers or markers. These products became very popular, and a new industry arose to meet the demand for the dials. The Radium Girls provides a surprisingly personal glimpse into the lives of the workers and owners of the business.radium girls 4

The title refers to the young women hired to paint the dials with radium paint in the 1920s. So much radium settled on their skin, clothes, and hair that they literally glowed when they went home after work. Worse, they were told the paint was harmless and were instructed to create a fine point on their radium-covered paintbrushes with their lips because using a cloth wasted time and material. Needless to say, ingesting so much radioactive material had a horrific effect on these workers, which Ms. Moore describes in unflinching detail.

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Workers painting dials in the factory.

Most relevant to this blog, The Radium Girls also describes the difficulties faced by the dial painters in getting even the most basic benefits under the new workers’ compensation laws in New Jersey and Illinois. For instance, some claims were barred by statute of limitations because the law didn’t adequately anticipate the time it might take for claims to manifest. Finding lawyers willing to take the case sometimes took years (some of the women tried to get Clarence Darrow to take their case), and at least one claim was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even after some of the workers won their cases, they found that they could not collect because the employer had moved to another state. These cases were front-page news all around the country and resulted in key changes to a number of labor laws, including the establishment of occupational disease laws.

The Radium Girls is a compelling read, full of interesting historical context and personal stories. In it, you’ll find everything from secret memos to forged reports and the ever-familiar battle between expert witnesses. You might also find some renewed appreciation for our modern approach to workplace injuries.

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One of the workers collapsed at her trial and had to finish giving testimony at home.

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The national press coverage was extensive.

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