The Radium Girls were factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint. The women, who had been told the paint was harmless, ingested deadly amounts of radium by licking their paintbrushes to sharpen them.
The company started on the east coast in a New Jersey town. Five of the women challenged their employer in a case that established the right of individual workers who contract occupational diseases to sue their employers. After the settlement the company closed and moved its operation to Ottawa under a new name. A similar case would follow as employees fell ill.
The Radium Girls saga holds an important place in the history of both the field of health physics and the labor rights movement. The right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse was established as a result of the Radium Girls case. In the wake of the case, industrial safety standards were demonstrably enhanced for many decades.
The new Jersey case was settled in the fall of 1928, before the trial deliberated by the jury, and the settlement for each of the Radium Girls was $10, 000 ($135,349 in today’s terms) and a $600 per year annuity ($8,121 per term year in today’s terms) while they loved and all medical and legal expenses incurred would also be paid by the company.
The lawsuit and resulting publicity was a factor in the establishment of occupational disease labor law. Radium dial painters were instructed in proper safety precautions and provided with protective gear; in particular, they no longer shaped paint brushes by lip, and avoided ingesting or breathing the paint. Radium paint was still used in dials as late as the 1960’s, but there were no further injuries to dial painters. This served to highlight that the injuries suffered by the Radium Girls were completely preventable.