World's Deadliest Construction Projects: Why Safety is Important
To this day, the construction industry is one of the deadliest in the United States – one in five workplace fatalities each year are construction workers, with falls being the leading cause of work-related death in the industry.
But thanks mainly to the occupational safety and health industry, construction work is much safer than it was in the past. Fatalities for big projects used to number in the thousands.
Looking back at past construction disasters can give us some perspective on the time, money, and effort we sink into safety compliance because it reminds us what's at risk when we don't.
What Makes For the Deadliest Construction Projects?
When you start looking at the deadliest construction projects in the world, it becomes clear that the poor safety record of construction in the past is more complicated than a few missing OSHA regs.
There are two ways to calculate the deadliest construction projects: by the sheer number of deaths or by the death rate per 1,000 workers (adjusting for the project size). The Hoover Dam killed nearly twice as many people as the Willow Island disaster, but Willow Island claimed 100% of its crew while the vast majority of Hoover Dam workers went home safely.
Which counts as the deadliest?
Regardless of the calculation method, the top of the list is heavily weighted with a blatant disregard for human life. The deadliest construction projects were so harmful because the people in charge neglected basic human needs.
Prime examples had a workforce that was viewed as disposable:
- the Burma-Siam Railway (built by Allied POWs during World War II),
- the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal (built by Russian political prisoners), and
- the U.S. transcontinental railroad (built by despised Asian immigrants).
Many of their workers died of starvation, exhaustion, and heat stroke or hypothermia.
Then there's hygiene and infectious disease. Some Eerie Canal workers were killed in blasting accidents, but others were killed by malaria. Many projects with makeshift camps got hit with dysentery, so we should be grateful for OSHA's fussy hygiene standards that force the bosses to rent porta-potties.
Infectious diseases – especially ones that were untreatable at the time – have been a massive source of fatality on crowded construction projects.
Then there's the recordkeeping issue – the sloppier the safety on a project, the less likely they are to keep track of deaths. We can only create estimates based on the historical record.
Surprisingly Safe Construction Projects
Here's how we know construction safety is something we can choose – some ancient projects had surprisingly good safety records.
Can you guess how many workers died building the Eiffel Tower in 1887?
Zero. Not a single one – and not by accident. The French extensively used guard rails and safety screens to protect the construction workers.
How many people died building the Chrysler building in 1928?
None. Despite an accelerated building schedule, all three thousand construction workers got their paychecks and went home safely.
How many people died building the Panama Canal?
The Panama Canal's death toll is more than 30,000, making it the construction project with the highest documented fatality rate in the world.
In other words, the Panama Canal is the world's deadliest construction project. It killed 40% of its workforce (408.12 out of every thousand workers).
Most of these fatalities were due to infectious diseases common in the tropics, namely yellow fever and malaria.
But the construction was pretty dangerous – they had to blast through the mountainous jungle and contend with mudslides during the rainy season. Even once they figured out how to control the mosquito population, workers faced drowning, electrocution, and prematurely igniting dynamite.
Which projects take second and third place?
The Burma-Siam Railway's a close second, with a death rate just behind the Panama Canal. At least 12,400 Allied POWs died during construction, earning it the nickname of the "Death Railway." Workers were starved, beaten, and kept in crowded, unsanitary conditions.
In third place, we have the Hawks Nest Tunnel in West Virginia, a 3-mile-long mountain tunnel built in 1931. At least 764 workers died within five years of the tunnel's completion, primarily from breathing silica dust (silicosis). Some estimates put the death toll over 2,000. Even if we go with a lower number, that's a death rate of 152.8 per thousand workers.
Hawks Nest Tunnel may be the world's deadliest construction project if you want to be a purist. Its victims did not suffer from inhumane brutality or mosquito-borne disease. Their deaths were a direct result of their work.
How many workers died while building the Suez Canal?
It's probably impossible to pin down Suez Canal's death toll across its entire lifespan – it's been under construction, in one way or another, since the ancient Egyptian dynasties.
But if we're talking about the modern Suez Canal death toll, an estimated 120,000 workers died during the 11-year excavation in the mid-1800s. There were around 30,000 people on the job at any given time, for a total workforce of roughly 1.5 million.
That puts the death rate at 80 per thousand workers (or 8%).
As with the Panama Canal, many deaths were due to infectious diseases like dysentery, hepatitis, smallpox, and tuberculosis. However, exposure to burning phosphorous probably didn't help.
How many workers died building skyscrapers in New York?
Although the Chrysler building stands out for having no fatalities, there were far fewer skyscraper worker deaths than you would expect in the early years, given the historical photos and footage of workers without safety equipment hundreds of feet in the air.
For example, how many people died building the Empire State Building? Five (5) workers died in slip-and-fall or struck-by accidents over the 13 months of construction (1929-1930). With 3400 workers total, that's a rate of 1.47 deaths per thousand.
Compare that to the World Trade Center in 1973, which had a similar total workforce but was a dozen times more deadly. The WTC is New York's most lethal construction project, with 60 fatalities.
However, the Brooklyn Bridge is NYC's deadliest if you adjust for project size. Its death rate is twice as high as the WTC – 50 fatalities per thousand workers compared to 17.14.
Keep Your Project Safe with Online OSHA Training
Today's construction industry is so much safer than we calculate fatal injury rates per 10,000. But for easier comparison, let's put 2020's rate in terms of deaths per thousand full-time equivalents (FTE) workers.
That makes the current national rate just 1.02. Look how far we've come.
Still, one thousand dead construction workers a year is one thousand too many.
OSHA standards work, but they work best when they're fresh on your mind and put into practice. We've been an OSHA-authorized training provider for over 20 years, and our online self-paced courses are convenient and cost-effective.
Your crew deserves to go home safely. Check out our catalog of OSHA Construction courses today.
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