• Rebekah.Orr

Whose idea was all this anyhow?!

Ever asked yourself that about health and safety? Sometimes it feels like a modern bureaucratic conspiracy to mess with workplace peace and productivity.

But the origins of the workplace safety movement go back a fairly long way, in fact. When famed scientists Marie Curie and her husband Pierre discovered radium in 1898, they cautioned against handling the raw element without protective measures, as they weren't sure what affect it might have. Mr Curie was said to have been afraid to be in a room with a kilogram of radium, for fear he might go blind. Turns out he was right be be afraid, although not necessarily for his sight. Early experimentation and application of radium led to the first breakthroughs of radiation use for cancer treatment, and it was hailed as helpful to health. Radium was added to cosmetics, toothpastes, chocolates; even in water treatment and used at health spas. ( see more here http://mentalfloss.com/article/12732/9-ways-people-used-radium-we-understood-risks ) Funny how things sometimes take time to be seen in the right light. To be fair, this is not so long after heroin was also seen as beneficial to health and happily sold over the counter by pharmacists, so we can probably allow for a lack of long term knowledge about these things.

Soon, the naturally blue-glowing radium was used to create a glow in the dark paint, to be used on the faces of watches and clocks and also on instruments for the newly-minted war machines - airplanes. With girls and women having excellent fine motor skills and generally smaller hands than their male counterparts, thousands of women found themselves applying the 'Undark' paint, with absolutely no knowledge of the dangers. They were all but encouraged to ingest the substance; instructed to keep the tips on their brushes fine and sharp by rolling it between their lips. Girls were known to paint their teeth with it to play tricks on their boyfriends! However, in 1922, one of the girls who had been working with Undark paint became very sick. Her teeth were falling out, her joints swollen and achy. Nobody could help, and she died in September of that year.

There was a group of five women who later sued the U.S Radium Company and became known as 'The Radium Girls' (background info here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whJDVnyuW44 ). The company tried all kinds of things to avoid responsibility for the illnesses of the women, including alleging that their ailments were caused by sexually transmitted disease! This, despite the fact that management at the U.S Radium Company appeared to be aware of the dangers of the substance and always donned protective gear if they needed to handle it.

To be fair to history, there had been a groundswell of workplace reform going on; places like mines and factories were starting to be held to account for their use (and misuse) of the workforce; and this case, in the end, was no different. The courts saw justice done, and reform around the use and handling of radium was enacted, becoming one of the first great landmarks in the development of industrial health and safety.

These days, we know there are six hazards at work : safety (machinery etc), biological (blood, mold etc), physical (able to cause harm without contact - like radiation, for example!), ergonomic (eg, frequent lifting), chemical (like cleaning products and the like), and organisation hazards (negative environment, bullying, sexual harassment), and workers have the right to speak up on these issues if safety is compromised in any way.

But beyond rights, there is responsibility. Weren't the management staff at U.S Radium MORE responsible for the safety of people working with their products, especially since they knew perfectly well it wasn't safe and ignored the dangers? And history is their judge.

History will be our judge too. It's easy to look back and ask 'how could they do that?' - but then we must also be responsible for asking ourselves what we know and are doing nothing about. How will history see us?

We're responsible to do everything we can, every day, to make the lives of those around us, and those that work for us as safe as we possibly can. We need to remember that their lives and futures may be in our hands, and we must take that every bit as seriously as we do our own lives and futures. Isn't that what we'd want if the shoe was on the other foot?

We're responsible as business owners, but furthermore simply as decent people, to do that.

Take care out there.


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