Everyone wants to feel safe at work, but some jobs are riskier than others. Employers have a responsibility to provide a reasonably safe workplace, but mistakes still happen. The results can sometimes be deadly.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) collects information on occupational fatalities. The most recent report recorded 5,333 workplace deaths in 2019, which equates to 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers. The top injuries that led to these deaths were transportation incidents, falls, violence, contact with equipment or objects, exposure to harmful substances, and fire or explosions.
Injuries can lead to permanent disabilities and diminished quality of life. They can even be fatal. Exposures on the job make people sick, exacerbate existing conditions, and may even cause cancer in workers. Job type affects exposure risks, but so does location, as some states and areas are more polluted than others.
An injury, exposure, or even fatality is possible in any workplace, but these are among the riskiest, most dangerous jobs in the U.S.:
1. Oil, Gas, and Coal Miners
Oil, gas, and mining are industries essential to providing energy but are also rife with accidents and harmful exposure incidents.
- Annual deaths: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported 69 deaths for oil and gas extraction workers in 2017. The U.S. Department of Labor reported 29 mining deaths in 2020, with just five in coal mining, a record low for this traditionally dangerous industry.
- Dangers: Workers in these industries face vehicle accidents, contact injuries, explosions, falls, and exposure to harmful substances.
- Effects on Health: In addition to physical accidents that can cause injury or death, coal miners and oil and gas workers can suffer poor health from chemical exposure. Fumes from gasoline, oil, and their combustion products can trigger or worsen respiratory conditions. Some substances are carcinogens. For instance, in states with a lot of coal mining, like Pennsylvania, rates of deaths caused by asbestos exposure are high. This mineral is found in the ground along with coal. Exposed workers may develop mesothelioma later.
2. Roofing and Construction Contractors
The obvious risk of falling is not the only danger on the job for construction and roofing workers. They can also be exposed to harmful substances.
- Annual deaths: According to the BLS, roofers rank fourth of all careers for deaths with 54 on-the-job fatalities per 100,000 workers. Construction workers are right behind with 40 per 100,000. The average fatality rate across all jobs is just 3.5.
- Dangers: The dangers of construction and roofing work obviously include accidents, like falls, electrocution or injuries from vehicle or equipment accidents. Construction workers also face the risk of exposure to harmful substances, including asbestos. Those at greatest risk are roofers, insulators, and demolition workers.
- Effects on Health: Falls and other accidents may cause mild or severe injuries, or even fatalities. Construction workers exposed to asbestos may develop asbestosis, mesothelioma, or lung cancer later.
3. Delivery Drivers
With so much time spent on the road, drivers have high rates of vehicle accidents and resulting injuries and fatalities.
- Annual deaths: The BLS places drivers seventh on the list of deadliest jobs in the U.S. The fatality rate was 26.8 per 100,000 workers.
- Dangers: The number one cause of fatalities in drivers is vehicle accidents. Other dangers of the job include exposure to toxic fumes and exhaust as well as harmful substances like asbestos if the drivers do repair work on their vehicles.
- Effects on Health: Fumes from vehicles on the road include toxins like particles, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. They put drivers at risk of developing or having worsening respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD, even lung cancer. The asbestos in vehicle brakes and clutches can cause exposure that leads to mesothelioma or lung cancer.
4. Tree Trimmers
Tree trimmers and arborists do dangerous work that puts them at risk of falls, injuries, and death.
- Annual deaths: The BLS does not have statistics specific to arborists, but the Tree Care Industry Association reported 92 fatalities in the industry in 2016.
- Dangers: The main risks associated with tree trimming are accidents that cause physical injury or death. These include falls, being struck by something, being crushed, vehicle accidents, and electrical incidents.
- Effects on Health: Physical injuries on the job can cause fractures, lacerations, head, spine, and back injuries, and ultimately death in some cases. Tree trimmers also use gas-powered equipment, which exposes them to fumes with particle pollutants and chemicals that can cause respiratory illness or increase the risk of cancer.
Iron and steel workers build large buildings, often working with heavy equipment at great heights.
- Annual deaths: The BLS reports 26.3 fatalities per 100,000 workers in the structural iron and steel industry, placing it eighth on the list of most dangerous jobs.
- Dangers: Ironworkers handle heavy equipment and materials. They also work at great heights, which means that falls are a big risk. Many ironworkers are on the job in urban areas with a lot of exhaust in the air. They are also exposed to fumes from the machinery and equipment they use.
- Effects on Health: Common injuries and accidents among these workers are falls, sprains, cuts, fractures, and overexertion. Exhaust fumes can exacerbate or trigger respiratory conditions. Organic solvents used on the job can cause skin rashes and respiratory symptoms.
6. Powerline Workers
Powerline workers, also known as line installers and repairers, do the dangerous work of installing, fixing, and maintaining power and telecommunication lines.
- Annual deaths: In 2015, 40 powerline workers died on the job or from injuries sustained on the job. Of these, 26 worked on power lines and 14 worked on telecommunication lines.
- Dangers: The main dangers associated with powerline work are falls and electrocution. They also work along roads and freeways and are exposed to vehicle exhaust daily.
- Effects on Health: Falls and electrocutions can cause physical injuries and even deaths. Exposure to particles and chemicals in exhaust put workers at risk for respiratory illnesses and even cancer.
7. EMTs and Paramedics
Emergency medical workers provide life-saving care, but they also put their lives on the line to help people.
- Annual deaths: A study of paramedics and EMTs found that there were 59 deaths among more than 20,000 injuries between 2003 and 2007.
- Dangers: First responders face many dangers on the job, including vehicle accidents, assaults, overexertion, and assaults.
- Effects on Health: Most of the risks that EMTs and paramedics face contribute to physical injuries. These include fractures, head injuries, cuts, burns, and even deaths.
8. Airline Pilots
Airline pilots have a huge responsibility to keep passengers and staff safe, but they also face their own risks that too often lead to fatalities.
- Annual deaths: The BLS reported the fatality rate for pilots and flight engineers at 61.8 per 100,000 workers. This makes the career the third deadliest.
- Dangers: There are many dangers to pilots on the job. They include poor cabin air quality, excessive noise, radiation exposure, illness, secondhand smoke, pesticide exposure, and crashes and accidents.
- Effects on Health: Crashes in planes are often fatal. Exposure risks also impact pilot health. Air crew face higher levels of radiation from cosmic rays, which increases cancer risks. Many aircraft must be sprayed with pesticides for international travel, which can also contribute to cancer in pilots. Exposure to viruses and bacteria causes illness, and secondhand smoke can cause respiratory issues and cancer.
9. Police Officers
Police officers put their lives on the line daily, but their risks are not limited to violent attacks or gunshots.
- Annual deaths: According to the BLS, 97 law enforcement workers died on the job in 2019.
- Dangers: The biggest risk of the job is being in a vehicle accident, followed by homicide. Officers may also fall or come into contact with objects. They can also suffer from exposure to harmful substances.
- Effects on Health: Vehicle accidents, homicides and violence, and object contact all cause physical injuries that can be fatal. Exposure to vehicle exhaust can contribute to respiratory illnesses or increase the risk of cancer. Police may also respond to any number of situations involving other harmful substances, like chemical spills or factory incidents.
Firefighters face numerous risks on the job, from fire and falls to chemical exposure and collapsing structures.
- Annual deaths: The BLS reports that 24 people died working in firefighting in 2019.
- Dangers: There are many and varied dangers in firefighting, including fires, structure collapse, vehicle accidents, violence, falls, and exposure to harmful substances.
- Effects on Health: Violence, falls, vehicle accidents, and fires cause potentially life-threatening injuries in firefighters. They also face harm from exposure to hazardous substances. Smoke from fires contains particles and chemicals that cause respiratory illnesses and lung cancer. They may also be exposed to chemicals during operations at industrial sites. These may cause lung and skin irritation or increase cancer risk. In older buildings, firefighters face exposure to asbestos damaged by fire and collapse. Asbestos inhalation can lead to lung cancer or mesothelioma.
11. Automotive Mechanics
Mechanics may die on the job because of accidents or from exposure to hazardous materials.
- Annual deaths: According to the BLS, 155 mechanics died due to working conditions in 2019.
- Dangers: The dangers associated with working on vehicles include accidents and exposure to harmful substances, like asbestos, vehicle exhaust, fuel, and solvents.
- Effects on Health: Vehicle and equipment accidents in garages cause physical injuries, which may be fatal. Exposure to asbestos occurs when mechanics work on brakes and clutches. It can lead to the later development of mesothelioma or lung cancer. Other chemicals in the garage can cause irritation, skin rashes, respiratory symptoms, and cancer.
12. Shipyard Workers
Shipyard workers include longshoremen, ship repairers and builders, maintenance workers, and equipment and vehicle operators.
- Annual deaths: The annual death rate for shipyard workers is higher than average at 4 per 100,000.
- Dangers: Shipyard workers face many different dangers on the job. Physical dangers include falls, object strikes, vehicle accidents, burns, and overexertion. Chemical exposures include asbestos, welding fumes, fuels, paints, and solvents.
- Effects on Health: Physical effects include fractures, head injuries, spine injuries, repetitive motion injuries, cuts, and burns. Exposures can cause respiratory illness, burns, rashes, irritation, and even cancer. Many older ships contain asbestos. Exposure to the fibers is not uncommon among workers and can lead to asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer.
13. Power Plant Workers
Workers in power plants play many roles, including equipment operation, maintenance and repair, and controls operations.
- Annual deaths: The BLS includes power plant workers in production careers, which saw 245 deaths in 2019.
- Dangers: All types of power plant workers face the dangers associated with being around heavy equipment, which can cause accidents. They may also be exposed to fires, chemicals, fumes, smoke, and even asbestos from building materials.
- Effects on Health: Accidents can cause a variety of injuries or fatalities in power plants. Exposure can cause respiratory symptoms, irritation, burns, skin rashes, and cancer.
14. Railroad Workers
The railroad industry is safer than in the past, but workers still face some of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses.
- Annual deaths: The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported 11 employee fatalities in 2020.
- Dangers: Most dangers in the industry cause injuries rather than fatalities. These include physical accidents with trains, vehicles, and equipment. Railroad workers are also exposed to harmful substances, like smoke, fuel, chemicals, solvents, and asbestos.
- Effects on Health: Physical accidents cause fractures, bruising, sprains, strains, and cuts. Exposure incidents can induce respiratory symptoms, irritation in the airways or on the skin, and an increased risk of cancer.
Do the Rewards Outweigh the Risks?
Dangerous jobs have obvious risks and downsides. In these careers, you face physical accidents that can cause bone breaks, head and brain injuries, cuts and burns, and injuries that may be fatal. You can also be exposed to harmful substances, like asbestos or vehicle exhaust, that cause harm in the moment and may lead to cancer later.
The benefits of many of these jobs are harder to see. They often pay well compared to other jobs. Many people also find them rewarding for the challenge and service to the public. To decide if you should enter a dangerous career, it’s important to weigh the risks against the rewards.
Don’t forget the impact your on-the-job risks have on loved ones. A dangerous job impacts the whole family. They may suffer mental health issues due to worry, and if the worst happens, grief at your loss.
How to Know if You Have Been Exposed
Exposure to harmful substances is not as easy to recognize as more obvious physical accidents and injuries on the job. And yet, exposure can cause significant harm. Take the example of asbestos. This substance looks harmless, but many people exposed to it develop cancer decades later.
Some jobs put you at greater risk of exposure than others. The location also plays a role. Some cities and states have more pollution and lower air quality than others. Both career type and location impact your risk of exposure.
It may not be obvious immediately that you have been exposed to something at work, but there are some signs to watch for:
- Respiratory symptoms, like coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing
- Headaches or dizziness
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Eye or skin irritation
Long-term, low-level exposure may not cause immediate symptoms. If you develop cancer or a respiratory illness after years on the job, talk to your doctor about the potential causes. It could be workplace exposure.
Is Your Employer Responsible? What to Do Next
Employers have a legal and ethical responsibility to provide a safe workplace. Federal and state laws outline specific responsibilities and rules employers must follow. For instance, if you work with hazardous substances, your employer must provide safety training and equipment.
If your employer failed to protect you adequately, you can report them to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. You may also be able to take legal action. Lawyers specializing in workplace accidents and exposures can look over your case, suggest options, and represent you as you seek justice or compensation.
Page Reviewed and Edited by
Dave Halpern, Mesothelioma Attorney
Dave Halpern is a Pennsylvania and New Jersey mesothelioma attorney with over 30 years of experience. He has investigated hundreds of cases and won numerous multimillion dollar settlements and verdicts for asbestos victims. Dave prides himself on working tirelessly to help his clients in their time of need.