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Alice in Wonderland - A Lesson in Occupational Illness
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Alice in Wonderland - A Lesson in Occupational Illness

Workers' Compensation

Alice in Wonderland has drawn attention to the consequences of occupational exposure. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has been quick to remind us of the Mad Hatter and mercury exposures.

Alice in Wonderland is a classic story written by Lewis Carroll in 1865. The story revolves around a young girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantastical world filled with peculiar and fantastical creatures. One of the most iconic characters in the story is the Mad Hatter, a character known for his strange behavior and constant tea parties.

However, there is a lesser-known fact about the Mad Hatter that is related to a real-life issue. The character's strange behavior is often attributed to mercury exposure in the workplace, as hatters in the 19th century used mercury in the process of making hats. Mercury is a toxic substance that can cause a range of health problems, including tremors, mood swings, and memory loss, similar to the symptoms displayed by the Mad Hatter.

Mercury exposure in the workplace is still a serious issue, affecting workers in various industries, including mining, healthcare, and manufacturing. Long-term exposure to mercury can lead to serious health problems, including damage to the nervous system, respiratory problems, and even death.

To protect workers from mercury exposure, it is important for employers to implement proper safety measures and for workers to be aware of the dangers of mercury and the steps they can take to protect themselves. This includes using proper protective equipment, such as gloves and respirators, and properly disposing of mercury-contaminated materials.

The Mad Hatter is not just a whimsical character from a classic story but also a cautionary tale about the dangers of mercury exposure in the workplace. It is important for employers and employees alike to be aware of the risks and take the necessary steps to protect themselves and others from the harmful effects of this toxic substance.


"Society has made great progress in recognizing and controlling industrial hazards since Lewis Carroll's day. For example, nearly 70 years ago, on December 1, 1941, the U.S. Public Health Service ended mercury's use by hat manufacturers in 26 states through mutual agreements. The kinds of conditions that put hat-makers and other industrial workers at risk in 1865 are no longer tolerated," said John Howard, M.D., Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

"However," Dr. Howard emphasized, "the Hatter remains a cautionary figure since exposures to mercury, and other hazardous industrial substances can still occur in the workplace. Symptoms from chronic exposures to mercury, lead, and other neurotoxic substances, even at low levels, may be subtle in the early stages. Sometimes, they may be mistaken for symptoms that can arise from other causes. Similar concerns exist about other adverse effects that are associated with exposures on the job. It is important to be vigilant about work-related illness and to act decisively to protect workers' health."


In 1911, New Jersey adopted the Workers' Compensation Act.  The original Act did not recognize any occupational diseases as compensable events.  In 1924 there were early amendments to the Act which enumerated 9 diseases as compensable.  Those diseases were: anthrax, lead poisoning, mercury poisoning, arsenic, phosphorous, benzene, wood alcohol, chrome, and caisson disease.

A utility man who was required to pour sixty pounds of mercury each day and who had mercury dust both on his face and his clothes developed muscular weakness.  The expert doctor testified that the disease was either caused by mercury poisoning or myasthenia gravis.  Even though his supervisor testified that daily showers were available to all employees, the treating doctor indicated that, as a result of positive clinical findings, diagnostic tests, and a history of exposure, the exposure was the cause of the petitioner's illness, namely muscular weakness, and was compensable. 
Jackson v. Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, 25 N.J.Misc. 33, 50 A.2d 106 (Com.Pl.1946).

A hatter who was required to come into contact with furs that had been treated with mercury was awarded total permanent disability benefits as a result of his having contracted the occupational disease of mercurial poisoning during the course of his employment. 
Horowitz v. Rothenberg Hat Co., 19 N.J.Misc. 284, 18 A.2d 852 (Dept. of Labor 1941), N.J.S.A. 34:15-31, L.1924, c. 124 (Sec. 1) 22b, p. 231.

An employee in the hat industry who had suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning and who had notified the insurance carrier was deemed to have notified the employer as well, and compensation was allowed. 
Yurow v. Jersey Hat Corporation, 131 N.J.L. 265, 36 A.2d 296 (1944), judgment aff'd 132 N.J.L. 180, 39 A.2d 371 (Err. & App.1944).

The Division of Epidemiology, Environmental and Occupational Health Services requires that treating physicians
report to the State Department of Health any occupational or environmental diseases within 30 days of diagnosis or treatment.  These diseases include lead toxicity, arsenic toxicity, mercury toxicity, cadmium toxicity, and pesticide toxicity. N.J.A.C. 8:58-1.5.

Mad Hatter: “No wonder you're late. Why, this watch is exactly two days slow.”


The author, Jon L. Gelman, practices law in Wayne, NJ. He is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (Thomson-Reuters). For over five decades, the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman  1.973.696.7900 have represented injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.

Recommended Citation: Gelman, Jon L.,  Alice in Wonderland - A Lesson in Occupational Illness, (2023),

© 2010-2023 Jon L Gelman. All rights reserved.

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