Many people believe that the free market and workplace safety cannot exist equally together. Karl Marx said that since competition drives down profits, business owners and employers would have to cut corners to stay in the game, ultimately putting their employees at risk.
However, work-related fatalities are lower than at any time in history—and by a striking percentage. In his 2018 book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker estimated that 61 workers per 100,000 employees died in work-related accidents leading up to 1913. By 2015, though the number of injured workers had fallen to 3.2 per 100,000—a 95% reduction in just over 100 years.
As the demand for safer, healthier working conditions has increased, laws and other regulations have been put in place to help ensure the safety of those still working in risky jobs. In some occupations, technological improvements brought safer working conditions, while in many others, technology and machinery also contributed to worker injuries and deaths.
Stacker researched dangerous industries ranging from manufacturing and construction to athletics and the military, across historical eras from medieval times to present day, and across the United States and the world. When applicable, we consulted fatal injury rates most recently reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in its 2017 Census of Fatal Occupations.
Read on to find out about the world’s most dangerous jobs throughout history.
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Soldiers were the first line of defense and fought using swords, shields, and arrows. They had to travel long distances to reach their enemies and often arrived exhausted and depleted. However, Spartan soldiers were still expected to fight no matter what, as surrendering was seen as the greatest sign of cowardice. Many soldiers died either during battle or from injuries amid the fighting.
Chariot racers were among the popular and celebrated members of society in ancient Rome. Competing in coliseums, chariot riders drew a large fan base because of their high-speed racing and aggressive styles. Reins were tied around racers’ wrists, so if a racer was overturned, he was almost instantly killed.
Many kings, queens, and emperors hired food tasters whose sole job was to make sure the royals’ food was not poisoned. Although the tasters risked their lives by eating possibly poisoned food, they also got to enjoy some of the most delicious and expensive food that members of the royal family ate.
Galley rower was a profession used for warfare or piracy. A galley was a large seagoing vessel propelled by rowing. Especially during the Middle Ages, this profession was considered honorable. However, as time went on, prisoners and criminals, for example, were forced to become rowers. Roughly one-third of galley rowers died within three years and nearly half did not survive.
A snake milker extracts venom from snakes for medical or research purposes, or in earlier times, for war. Milkers handle some of the most deadly snakes on Earth. In modern times, milkers have used the extracted venom to create anti-venom antidotes; during ancient civilization, milkers used venom to soak swords or arrows for use as a biological warfare tactic.
When the Black Plague knocked out roughly half of Europe in the 14th century, bodies littered the streets. The job of plague body collector was invented, which required the worker to collect bodies using only a cart, a rag to cover their faces, and flowers which were believed to prevent collectors from contracting the disease.
Mining in the United States, specifically during the late 1890s to early 1900s, employed the “room and pillar method,” which used coal pillars and timber to hold up roofs. Miners worked in separate rooms, leading to limited labor supervision, and regular blasting was necessary to bring down coal. Being paid by the ton, miners often put production ahead of safety to maximize profit.
Working on 19th-century U.S. railroads required workers to go between moving freight cars for coupling and uncoupling and ride the cars to work the brakes. In 1889, the United States averaged a rate of 8.52 fatalities per thousand workers per year.
By 1900, manufacturing in the United States operated under ever-increasing output as fashion became a more popular aspect of society. Many machines and power sources were regularly unguarded and unregulated as employers focused more on output than safety.
Logging in the United States has always been a dangerous job. Traveling through difficult terrain and using large, heavy cutting equipment, loggers are almost always at risk of injury and accidents. The fatal injury rate for loggers today in the U.S. is 84.3 deaths per 100,000 workers.
The fatal injury rate for fishers and fishing workers is 99.8 deaths per 100,000 U.S. workers. They must deal with freezing temperatures, turbulent seas, long work hours, and heavy gear. The Discovery Channel’s documentary TV show “Deadliest Catch” (2005–present) gives viewers a look into the treacherous life of commercial fishermen.
Construction-related fatalities account for about 30% of the world’s occupational deaths, according to the International Labour Organization. Dangers include the risk of falling, electrocution, and amputations. Also, since construction workers are often exposed to toxins found in building materials, these workers have a higher risk of developing cancer.
Most agricultural-related fatalities or injuries result from long days on the job and working with heavy machinery. Although new technology has improved agricultural efficiency, it has brought with it a higher risk of injury or death from a machine malfunction. Tractors and tractor overturns are among the leading cause of death for agricultural workers, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Roofers face not only the risk of injury and death from falling, but they also are subject to burns from chemicals, electrocution from exposed wires, and being hit by falling debris. The fatal injury rate is 45.2 deaths per 100,000 workers in the U.S. The United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers, and Allied Workers is advocating to make the profession safer through stronger training and more protection.
The fatal injury rate of U.S. aircraft pilots and flight engineers is 48.6 deaths per 100,000 workers. Bush flying, which entails flying over rough terrain and in areas that do not have dedicated landing strips, is among the most dangerous of aviation jobs. Difficult terrain, tough weather, and rocky takeoffs and landings can make piloting deadly.
Collecting and sorting trash is one of the most dangerous jobs worldwide. In the United States, the fatal injury rate is 35 deaths per 100,000 workers. In crowded, busy cities, such as New York City, impatient drivers and tight streets add the risk of being hit by a car. The job poses risks from objects flying off the back of the truck, popping bags, and debris—whether sharp shards of glass, sewage, bowling balls, or wood splinters—shooting out and causing injury.
In African countries such as Rwanda, street sweeping is among the most dangerous jobs a person can have. Street sweepers, typically women, spend day and night walking along highways and streets clearing dust and debris. Particularly in rural areas, highways and other streets do not have any lights or signs to tell drivers to slow down.
The fatal injury rate for truck drivers in the U.S. is 26.8 deaths per 100,000 workers. Since truck drivers are paid based on how many loads they deliver, workers are almost always pushing themselves and sometimes sacrifice sleep and health so they can make more money.
Power linemen are responsible for fixing damaged or broken lines. These workers often must do their jobs high up, and deal with high-voltage power lines and extreme weather. Since communities depend on these lines to provide power to their homes, sometimes workers must fix lines in the middle of the storms that knocked them out. The fatal injury rate for power linemen in the U.S. is 18.7 deaths per 100,000 workers.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 proved that oilfield workers have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Extreme heights, heavy machinery, and hazardous materials are some risks these workers face daily.
Being a police officer requires risking one’s life every day. Fatalities in the occupation can occur from gun violence, physical assault, traffic accidents, to list just a few examples. The fatal injury rate for U.S. police and sheriff’s patrol officers in 2017 was 12.9 deaths per 100,000 workers.
Grounds maintenance workers regularly use dangerous equipment, such as tree cutters and pruners, and often are injured or killed via this equipment. The workers also use equipment at extreme heights, and falls and slips while working are among the main reasons the fatal injury rate is 15.9 deaths per 100,000 workers.
Taxi drivers and chauffeurs are constantly on the road, increasing their risk of being involved in a car accident. They also work long hours, which can lead to fatigue and increase the risk of an accident. The fatal injury rate for taxi drivers and chauffeurs in the U.S. is 10.5 per 100,000 workers.
Athletes, coaches, and other similar workers have a fatal injury rate of 9.5 per 100,000 workers. Athletes face strain and often injury, specifically those who play football and other contact sports, which increases their risk of getting hurt.
Carpenters construct, install, and repair structures made of wood. They typically use powerful and sharp equipment that often is responsible for injuries and fatalities. Falls, slips, and trips were the leading cause of death for U.S. carpenters in 2017, making up 64 out of 101 fatalities.
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