Industries of exploitation: The ‘Radium Girls’ and the state of industrial working conditions today

The effects of radium exposure (P.C. Flickr)

In the early 1900s, radium became a prolific consumer product in the US. Used in a variety of products, including cosmetics and tonics, it was most famously worked into dials and clock faces.  Now, despite its far-ranging consumption, radium had only been discovered in 1898 and knowledge of the element was limited. Safety guidelines, hence, were scant. From 1917 onwards, hundreds of young working-class women attained jobs in factories painting clockfaces and dials with radium. Here, these women were encouraged to practice ‘lip-pointing’, sharpening the points of brushes with their lips. Having their employers’ assurances that radium was safe, many applied it to their hair and skin to achieve a luminescent effect, soon to become known as ‘the ghost girls’.

As a result of their continued exposure to and ingestion of radium, many of these women grew ill. The first fatality among this group of women was Amelia Maggia, an employee of the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation (later the US Radium Corporation) who died in 1922. Maggia experienced toothache and ulcers that soon spread and necessitated the removal of her lower jaw. Many other dial painters experienced similar symptoms, but the RLMC continued to deny the possible role of radium in their deaths. Even after the corporation commissioned a study on the deaths of the workers that proved a link between the fatalities and radium, it continued to deny the dangers of the substance. After numerous deaths, ‘lip-pointing’ was abolished in 1927, but workers continued to handle radium with little protection. Women employed as dial painters continued to suffer radium-related illnesses, such as cancer in the 1940s and 1950s. It wasn’t until 1979 and 1980 that the final radium factories were closed.

The case of the ‘Radium Girls’ (as they have come to be known) has shown some results for the way employee welfare has improved across the US; in 1938 Catherine Wolfe Donohue’s case against the Radium Dial Corporation was one of the first instances of a company being held responsible for the safety and welfare of its employees. Yet despite this, and numerous other cases made by other workers, changes to working conditions in factories has progressed rather slowly across the decades.

After all, similarities between the ‘Radium Girls’ and modern garment factory workers cannot be overlooked. Payment by piece, relaxed safety regulations and exposure to harmful substances tie these groups together. As a parable in tragedy, the ‘Radium Girls’ illuminates the need for improvement to the lives of factory workers todays. 

The company Shein, for example, when investigated by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was found to have been selling clothing that contained elevated levels of lead, PFAS and Phthalates, all of which, when exposed to in high amounts and over long periods could pose health concerns. Workers, therefore, were likely exposed to these substances in high quantities. This is on top of the fact that the Swiss company, Private Eye, found that workers producing for Shein were often working 75-hour weeks in factories with inadequate fire safety measures. 

International action, of course, is needed to ensure the welfare of these workers is protected, and that they are paid fairly. Countries importing this clothing could enact change by enforcing legislation against exploitative working practices and enforcing quality control over imports. The exploitation of the ‘Radium Girls’ and present-day textile workers was and is enabled by governments refusing to create new legislation on radium and enforcing responsibility on large corporations. Remembering tragedies such as that of the ‘Radium Girls’ demonstrates the necessity of swift action to protect the welfare and rights of exploited workers. 

Amy Raven, Summer Writer

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