Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Silkwood Saga

     Karen Silkwood was a college-educated chemical technician at Keer-McGee's plant near Oklahoma City in the early 1970s.  She became active in the local union, participating in a strike against the company and later serving as union negotiator.  She became and activists, alleging that Keer-McGee put production needs ahead of employee safety and that they had falsified inspection records to meet production goals.  Silkwood had evidently collected documentation to support her allegations and was prepared to go public with that information by late 1974.
     All the indications are that she was intentionally contaminated with a massive dose of radioactive material by an unknown person or persons from Keer-McGee in early November 1974.  In addition to the personal health concerns associated with being contaminated, her decontamination was brutal and radiological cleanup of her home left it a shambles.
     Management at Keer- McGee asserted that Silkwood contaminated herself to shed negative light on the company. (Come on gang; let's get real!)   For the previous 4 months, records indicate that she had not had access to the part of the plant where her contamination reportedly originated.
     Silkwood died on November 13, 1974 when she wrecked her '74 Honda Civic en route to Oklahoma city to spill the beans to a New York Times reporter.  In spite of the suspicious nature of the accident and evidence of foul play, no one was ever implicated in her death.  The derogatory documents that she allegedly carried were never found.
     Silkwood's family filed a suit against Keer-McGee which was eventually settled out of court for $1.38 million.
   Industry, in general, puts production ahead of employee safety.  They give safety a lot of lip service but the "bottom line" is money.   The need to show a profit above all else is just one of the perils of the free enterprise system.  All we can hope for is to keep safety in the forefront and rely on OSHA and activism to minimize death and injury in the workplace.  I applaud people like Karen Silkwood when they have a legitimate complaint and are willing to stand up for themselves and fellow employees.  In her case , unfortunately, it put her at great personal risk.  It is a shame her death was never completely explained.  I suspect someone should have paid dearly!

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