Shining Women Are People Too

In this age of big data and Amazon.com, it might be easy to think companies, especially our employers, have our best interests at heart. They know exactly what we want, before we want it. But as disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and leak show us, sometimes money comes before everything, even worker's lives. Here are three books about the struggle it can take to get corporate America to do the right thing.

When young women went to work at United States Radium Corporation and Radium Dial Company, they weren't out to change federal law, just get a good and much-needed paycheck. Radium was the wonder substance of the early 20th century, certainly safe enough to put on a paintbrush, put a point on the paintbrush with one's lip and tongue, and paint onto a watch face. A few years later, though, these women were having oral trouble and blood issues. Often, this would develop into full-blown sarcomas and other cancers. Now we know it was due to the radium at their jobs and a clear case of industrial poisoning. However, these women's employers fought a long and often successful battle against workers' compensation claims and any shred of responsibility for their illness and deaths. Kate Moore passionately chronicles the struggle for justice in The Radium Girls. She focuses on the individual women, often interviewing surviving family members and digging into personal papers. It is a very sad tale, but one of great significance to workplace safety.

Kristen Iversen captures a different side of radioactive poisoning in Full Body Burden. Iversen grew up near Rocky Flats, Colorado, where the Dow Chemical Company was secretly making plutonium triggers for atomic weapons. After several hushed-up fires and cancer rates at orders of magnitude above the average population in surrounding communities, Rocky Flats was finally cleaned up for 7 million dollars and made into a wildlife refuge in 2007. Iversen is not as emotional in her narrative as Moore, but she still gets her point across, sharing the similarities between the secrecy at the plant with that of her troubled family.

Of course, some fires and the human collateral damage can't be hushed up. There are many good books on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, but the one I'm going to focus on is Triangle by Dave Von Drehle. For those not in the know, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory employed hundreds of seamstresses in the early 20th century, most of them immigrants. When a fire broke out in 1911, flagrant violations of building code and general safety precautions cost 123 young women their lives. Von Drehle documents how while the prosecution of the owners of the factory was unsuccessful, many safety and labor rules were instituted as a result of the inferno. The author uses as many primary sources as possible, including interviews with the survivors of the fire years after the fact, giving voice to their dreams and desires.

Are there more good books about industrial disasters? Sure there are! Tell us about them in the comments section.

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