If you pay attention to U.S. politics at all, you have heard politicians talk about how regulations are a burden to employers and are killing jobs. Here is one example of when a lack of regulation was killing workers.
During and after World War I the government contractor U.S. Radium Corporation hired female workers in Orange, New Jersey to do the delicate work of painting watch faces and instrument panels with glow-in-the-dark paint. This paint went by the brand name Undark and was made luminous with the addition of radium, a radioactive element. Because the paintbrush tips lost their shape after several strokes, employees were told by managers to pinch the brush tips between their lips to create a finer point. They were told that the paint they were constantly ingesting was harmless.
But some of these women began suffering and dying of unexplained illnesses. One of the most noticeable issues was with their teeth and jaws. When dentists x-rayed their teeth, they discovered that the women’s jawbones were decaying and were riddled with holes. Eventually dentists and doctors realized the common denominator was previous or current employment with U.S. Radium Corporation.
In the 1920s, when one of these women decided to sue U.S. Radium Corporation, it took two years to find an attorney willing to bring a case against a large corporation that was contracted to the government. Five women sued for compensation for medical expenses and pain. By the time their case finally made it to trial, partly due to delaying tactics by the corporation, several of the women were bedridden and the others were unable to lift their hands to swear the oath. The media dubbed them the “Radium Girls”.
You might be thinking that this was all a long time ago and probably nobody knew that this substance was dangerous. This would simply be another sad story about the unknown dangers of a new product except for one thing: U.S. Radium Corporation’s management and scientists used precautions such as lead shields, masks to protect them from inhaling the dust, and tools to ensure they didn’t directly touch the radium or the paint. They may not have known the extent of the danger due to conflicts in scientific opinion, but they certainly made sure to protect themselves.
U.S. Radium Corporation also engaged in a campaign of misinformation before and during the trial to show that the women were not sick, and even if they were, it had nothing to do with their factories. They sent a fake doctor to examine one of the women and he claimed she was in excellent health. They tried to ruin the reputations of the women by claiming that they actually had syphilis.
Ultimately the matter was settled out of court. After many delays, the Radium Girls and their attorney agreed to a settlement for an amount much less than they had requested. Knowing they did not have long to live, they decided to take the offer rather than hope they lived through further court delays.
This example of the lack of any regulations on business happened almost one hundred years ago, but one of the things I’ve learned from history is that humanity doesn’t change all that much. I would like to believe that there are no large corporations today that would knowingly endanger their employees and then cover it up. I would like to believe that, but I don’t. What do you think? Am I being too cynical?
*** Extra factoid: Marie Curie discovered radium and was a pioneer in the field of radioactivity. She died in 1934 of aplastic anemia from exposure to radiation.