The Radium Girls and Occupational Disease Laws
The term Radium Girls represents a defining moment of Occupational disease laws for Workers Compensation. Occupational disease calculations have been the bane of many actuaries and underwriters.
The Incurred But Not Reported (IBNR) injuries are extremely hard to estimate in the area of occupational disease. The WC laws often allow a claim long after an exposure “upon discovery of the disease.”
A recent TV show covered the harrowing injuries received by the Radium Girls. In 1917, over 4,000 women were hired to paint watch faces by US Radium. The narrator pointed out most of the women were watch face painters. The soldiers in World War II could see the painted watch faces in the dark. The glow-in-the-dark watch faces were sometimes critical for their survival.
The highly radioactive paint was ingested by the workers as they would sharpen the brush with their lips after each face was painted. Ingesting over 200 small doses of radiation per day resulted in horrible injuries. Most women lost their complete lower jawbone as it would basically separate from their skull.
Googling radium ads around the turn of the century showed that radium was safe and was often used in over the counter medicine. Even though Madam Curie gave out a warning with her discovery, it was oft ignored by the public.
The most striking part of the TV documentary was when one of the women was painting the radium paint or her fingernails and teeth to impress her boyfriend/husband.
Six of the women sued US Radium. The pre-trial settlement amount for each woman was $133,000 (today’s dollars) + an annuity of $600 + lifetime medical care. The press covered the events following up to the trial very heavily.
The publicity from the lawsuit became a factor in the establishment of occupational disease laws. The radium paint was used until the mid-1960’s. The radium dial painters never sustained any more occupational diseases as their employers:
- Instructed them to never touch the paint along with other precautions
- Provided them with protective gear
- Proved the disease was 100% preventable
This picture of the Radium Girls at work is chilling. This pic showing the radium paint resulting in radium jaw is almost macabre. There are many sources of reading material on this turn of the century tragedy. Wikipedia has a great list of reading material on this subject.
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