A shining future?

written by Jonathan Pollack

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While the story of the Radium Girls, as presented in These Shining Lives, is tragic, we can at least console ourselves that the play describes events that happened nearly a hundred years ago. Surely, after all this time, American industries must have learned from the Radium Girls’ experiences and come to prioritize safety over fashion and profit. It’s inevitable that public outrage over the doomed lives of the Radium Girls would eventually lead to more knowledge about hazardous substances in the workplace, and a desire never to repeat the Radium Girls’ tragic story, right?

 

That would be great. However, assumptions from the Radium Girls’ era are still with us. State workers’ compensation boards constantly need to balance worker safety with bottom-line concerns of companies that are often major employers. The multi-decade trend of outsourcing means that businesses that involve workers’ use of hazardous substances can pit states against each other, and states that are desperate for factory jobs can stress their relaxed approach to worker safety as an inducement for employers to relocate there. On a national level, outsourcing to other countries with less-rigorous safety standards than the US means that most Americans never see the impacts of workplace contamination on the workers who make the goods we buy.

 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), created by President Richard Nixon fifty years ago, would seem to put concerns about workplace safety to rest. However, from its beginnings, OSHA has always been a political football, facing decreasing funding and a focus on employers’ concerns and more funding and attention to workers’ concerns depending on the party in power. While the cases of individual people contaminated in their workplaces continue to stir public outrage, the larger picture of everyday practices to prevent horrific injury gets lost. Women workers in low-wage factory jobs, located in small towns far from major media markets, continue to weigh the benefits of steady work against the potential for long-term health problems as the Radium Girls did a hundred years ago.

 

So, how far have we come? And what do the Radium Girls teach us?

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