Dangerous jobs from throughout human history
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.
Ancient Rome chariot racers
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.
Plague body collector
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.
'Room and pillar' mining
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.
19th-century American railroads
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.