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“Radium Girls,” Beryllium, and Silica Dust: Worker Safety Saga Continues as Trump Administration Weakens OSHA Enforcement

I am ashamed to say that only this past month did I only discover the history of The Radium Girls-The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (author Kate Moore; published by sourcebooks in 2017). Ms. Moore is to be commended for her contribution to public awareness of these unsung heroes who died of radium poisoning acquired during their employment, in their late teens and twenties, at U.S. Radium Corporation/Radium Dial Company (USRC), later Radium Luminous Processes, in New Jersey during the approximate time period 1917-1930, as watch dial-painters who often sharpened the tip of their camel-hair paintbrushes with their mouths (so-called “brush-licking” or “lip-pointing”, “lip, dip, paint”). These unfortunate but brave workers were paid relatively handsome compensation for painting watches and, during World war I, military dials, with the element, radium, then recently discovered by scientist Marie Curie. The women workers had been assured by their manager that there was no danger in ingesting the material and that, in fact, “the substance would put roses in their cheeks.”
As noted in author Moore’s comment published in buzzfeed (, Marie Curie herself had suffered radiation burns from handling radium and ultimately died of radium poisoning and, remarkably, male employees working at radium companies during the same time period were provided lead aprons in their laboratories and handled the radium with ivory-tipped tongs. Equally or more outrageously, the first dial-painter fatality, Mollie Maggia, dead at age 24, was erroneously reported to have died of syphilis.
When business took a downturn due to adverse publicity, USRC commissioned an expert report on the issue which actually confirmed the radium exposure-illness link; consequently, USRC commissioned new studies that published the opposite conclusion and USRC’s president lied to the Department of Labor concerning the initial report. USRC persisted in its efforts to evade responsibility. A satellite company, Luminous Process Company, was set up employing women in similar conditions. Radium Dial leadership even conducted medical tests on the women, but they refused to share the related records with their workers. Management introduced “glass pens” with fine points for painting to replace “lip, dip and paint,” but these pens lowered productivity for these piece-rate workers (earning about a penny and a half per dial).
Only when the first male employee of USRC, chemist Dr. Edwin Lehman, died did “experts take up the charge,” according to Moore. The experts, including Dr. Harrison Martland, then explained how ingested radium settled in the women’s bodies and continued to emit destructive radiation that “honeycombed” the women’s still luminous bones. Reportedly, Dr. Sabin A. Von Sochocky, the inventor of radium paint himself, became ill from radium in his hands, and assisted the women dial painters in their quest until his 1928 death of aplastic anemia.
The radium girls’ struggle for justice, i.e., recognition of compensability for their disease, was not easily undertaken (the disease was insidious, its symptoms, including huge sarcomas, not becoming evident until after the limitations statute had passed), but was inspired by altruistic motive to protect other dial painters. USRC’s cover-up was ruthless, including interference in autopsies and theft of radium-riddled bones.
Moore notes from her meticulous research that the litigation of the radium girls (Grace Fryer, Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice; later also Catherine Donahue), in which they were represented by attorneys Raymond Berry and Leonard Grossman (working pro bono for Donahue), was one of the first in which an employer was held responsible for its employees’ health, which precedent also was pivotal to the establishment of occupational disease labor law and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
Fast-forward to the present. Under the Trump Administration, in August 2017 OSHA erased data on workplace deaths from the home page of its website and altered policy to disclose fewer fatal workplace accidents going forward. A new “fatality list,” buried on an internal page of the site, excludes incidents where a worker was killed if the company was not cited by OSHA for violations, potentially resulting in an omission of 20% of workplace deaths from the log. This way, says Deborah Berkowitz, a former OSHA adviser and current senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project, the Labor Secretary can boast that through “mutual cooperation” (or “self-policing,” the Trump Administration’s preferred m.o.), rather than “enforcement,” worker deaths are down. On April 3, 2017 Trump also repealed OSHA’s “Volks Rule” which imposed on employers certain continuing obligations to make and maintain accurate records of recordable injuries and illnesses, which had previously been effective as of January 18, 2017.
Also deliberately delayed are previous OSHA efforts with respect to development of new standards to address infectious diseases in the health care industry and chemical exposures in a variety of industries. In particular, OSHA is deferring enforcement of a final rule on the toxic element, beryllium, which is used in the aerospace and defense industries to make lightweight precision instruments and which causes lung disease including cancer, and “slow-walking” enforcement of a regulation to strengthen protections for construction workers against silica dust, which is generated in construction and mining and which causes lung and kidney disease. Reportedly, “OSHA will only consider issuing citations for employers who don’t appear to be making an effort to comply and the head office must sign off on any proposed citations,” notwithstanding that it is extremely difficult for an OSHA inspector to prove that an employer is acting “in bad faith” and thus “effectively taking the teeth out of its enforcement phase in,” according to Jordan Barab who helped develop the silica dust rule under the previous OSHA administration.
Reminiscent of USRC’s campaign against protections for workers exposed to radium, William Wehrum, an attorney representing the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association and the Brick Industry Association in litigation against the silica dust rule who was confirmed last month as Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, was quoted as saying, “People are designed to deal with dust- people are in dusty environments all the time and it doesn’t kill them.” Trump also proposes to entirely defund and eliminate the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent federal non-enforcement agency established in 1995 in the wake of a fatal explosion in a chemical mixing tank at a New Jersey production plant of chemical manufacturer, Napp Technologies, to investigate chemical accidents at fixed facilities.
With plaudits from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Trucking Association, among others, Trump recently nominated for assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, a post vacant since January, Scott Mugno, vice president of safety, sustainability and vehicle maintenance at Fed Ex Ground. As published in Business Insurance, “employers hope that [if affirmed, Scott Mugno] will spur a more collaborative approach to regulation and enforcement.” Gloria Gonzales, 12/4/17. Supporters of Mugno, quoted in Gonzales’s report, opine that OSHA should be “looking to partner with rather than punish employers.”