The human cost of construction: An inside look at the world’s most notable and deadliest construction projects
Construction can be a risky business. Over the past 200 years, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives while working on construction projects, whether from accidents, equipment failure or unsafe working conditions. In recent years, deaths on major construction sites have decreased, as safety protocols, labor rights and equipment have improved.
A new interactive timeline by Southern California law firm DIMARCO | ARAUJO | MONTEVIDEO includes some of the world’s most significant architecture and infrastructure projects, including the Panama Canal (30,609 deaths), Hoover Dam (96 deaths), World Trade Center (60 deaths) and Brookyln Bridge (30 deaths). The timeline puts some of the deadliest projects in context, showing how major construction projects from the past 200 years compare in terms of lives lost. The timeline also breaks down each project’s death rate per thousand workers.
The timeline also includes some surprisingly non-lethal construction projects, from New York’s Chrysler Building, which had zero deaths among the 3,000 workers who completed it in 1930, to the Eiffel Tower, which had just one reported death during its construction in 1889. The Empire State Building and Chicago’s Sears Tower both reported just five deaths during their respective construction periods.
One of the most-deadly projects was the Suez Canal. Its construction led to the deaths of 120,000 of the hired and forced laborers who dug it out over a decade in the mid-1800s. With roughly 1.5 million people involved in the construction, that represents a rate of 80 deaths per 1,000 workers — a rate comparable to that for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the U.S., which claimed 1,200 of its 15,000 workers. The most devastating project was the Panama Canal, which had more than 30,000 deaths, representing about 40 percent of its workforce.
Erie Canal: 1,000 deaths
Called the 8th wonder of the world when it was completed in 1825, the Erie Canal connected Lake Erie to the Hudson River and was instrumental in opening the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers and trade. It took a total of 8 years and some 50,000 laborers working for 80 cents a day to complete the iconic 363 mile long passage. Of the 50,000 workers, 1,000 lost their lives, due to disease from the swampy terrain and careless use of gunpowder while blasting. Others drowned or were buried under tons of rubble from frequent canal collapses.
Transcontinental Railroad: 1,200 deaths
15,000 worked on this project which was started in 1863. White men were paid $35.00 a month plus room and board. Chinese were paid $25.00 a month, but paid for their own supplies. However the number of 1,200 was never verified. One newspaper article entitled “Bones in Transit” of June 30, 1870 in the Sacramento Reporter reported that “about 20,000 pounds of bones” dug up from shallow graves were taken by train for return to China, calculating that this amounted to 1,200 Chinese. Another article published on the same day in the Sacramento Union stated that only the bones of about 50 Chinese were on the train. Others believe that some Chinese must have also died in a smallpox outbreak among railroad workers, although there are no records if any of the dead were Chinese. In addition, there were reports of Chinese workers being killed in Nevada as the result of Indian raids.
Suez Canal: 120,000 deaths
Completed in 1869, the Suez Canal connected the Mediterranean and Red Seas allowing for water transport between Europe and Asia without having to circumvent Africa. The 101 mile long passage employed an impressive 1.5 million both forced and hired laborers from various countries, mainly Egypt, with as many as 120,000 dying during the 11 year excavation process. Today more than half of the inter-continental shipping of the entire world passes through this canal.
Brookyln Bridge: 30 deaths
Linking Manhattan and Brooklyn since its completion in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most iconic structures found in the United States. Surprisingly, the over a mile long bridge only employed 600 workers who worked for $2 a day for about 13 years until its completion. Of these 600 laborers there were 30 fatalities, including the designer of the bridge, John A. Roebling, who had his foot crushed while taking compass readings and died a few weeks later of tetanus. The remaining casualties came from falls, falling debris, and cases of caisson disease, known as “the bends.” Even though the bridge is over 130 years old, today it still carries around 150,000 cars and pedestrians each day.
The Eiffel Tower: 1 death
Constructed as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower is easily one of the most recognizable structures in the world. Employing a small force of 300 workers, the tower was completed in record time, requiring just over 26 months of total construction time. Of these 300 on-site laborers, there was only one fatality thanks to the extensive use of guard rails and safety screens. Today the Eiffel tower welcomes an impressive 7 million visitors each year.
The Titanic: 8 deaths
Known as both one of the most impressive feats of engineering in its day and one of the most famous catastrophes of the century, the Titanic took three years and around 3,000 workers to complete before its maiden voyage in 1912. Laborers earned a measly two British pounds per every 50 hour work week, driving in some 3 million rivets over the course of its construction. 8 workers lost their lives during construction in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which was actually less than the 15 deaths that were originally expected for a project of this magnitude.
Los Angeles Aqueduct: 43 deaths
Finished in 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct is responsible for Los Angeles County expanding into the major West Coast metropolis that it is today. The 233 mile long aqueduct took 4,000 laborers, working for $2 a day, to build and at its completion it became the longest aqueduct and largest single water project in the world. Conditions in the Owens Valley were hot, remote, and often dangerous, leading to the death of 43 workers over the course of its five year construction. However, after the aqueduct was finished, the population of Los Angeles was able to balloon from a mere 300,000 to the over 10 million inhabitants living in the region today.
Panama Canal: 30,609 deaths
Connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans for maritime trade, the Panama Canal is one of the most notable engineering achievements of the modern world and also one of the most deadly. Managed by a number of different countries over its 32 year construction period, the 48 mile canal took about 75,000 laborers of various origins to complete. However, the region was dubbed the “Fever Coast,” with instances of everything from small pox and typhoid to yellow fever, causing an astounding 30,609 workers to die and hospitalizing thousands more. Coupled with poor working conditions, malnutrition, and frequent accidents, workers would watch as their fallen comrades were shipped away in droves by coffin every evening.
Sydney Harbour Bridge: 16 deaths
As one of Australia’s most recognizable landmarks, the Sydney Harbor Bridge connects the Sydney central business district with the North Shore. Completed in 1924 after 8 years of construction by some 2,500 laborers, it is the sixth longest spanning-arch bridge in the world. 16 workers lost their lives during construction; two by falling off the bridge, and the others due to unsafe working conditions while heating and inserting the bridge’s six million rivets by hand.
Empire State Building: 5 deaths
Finished in 1930 after a quick 13 month construction period, the Empire State Building is an American cultural icon that held the record as the world’s tallest building for 42 years. 3,400 laborers working for $15 a day moved at lightening pace, building 4.5 floors a week until completion. Although it is rumored that hundreds died during its construction, official records put the death toll at 5 workers who met their fate via slip and fall accidents or being struck by heavy objects.
Chrysler Building: 0 deaths
Completed in 1930 after two quick years of construction, the Chrysler building in New York was the world’s tallest building for only 11 months before being surpassed by the Empire State Building. 3,000 workers, building at an average rate of four floors per week, manually laid almost 4 million bricks until the structure was complete. Surprisingly, no workers died constructing the Chrysler Building despite the speedy pace at which it was finished.
Hawks Nest Tunnel: 764 deaths
The construction of a three mile long tunnel through Gauley Mountain in West Virginia in 1931 is known as one of the worst industrial disasters in United States history because of the certainty of death. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of fatalities from the 5000 person workforce because many died from silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can take a few years to become fatal. For example, it’s estimated that at least 764 of the 1213 men who worked underground for a mere 2 months died within five years of the tunnel’s completion, but other estimates raise this figure to over 2000. Thus, many of these laborers, who were only working for 25 cents a day, would almost certainly pay with their life by staying underground for even relatively short periods of time.
White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal: 12,000 deaths
Built entirely by forced labor of gulag inmates, the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal was completed in 1933 with the intention of providing both military and economic advantages to the USSR by connecting the two bodies of water. Over a period of 20 months, 126,000 workers were forced to excavate 141 miles of canal using nothing but hand tools and living under terrible conditions. Official records indicate that 12,000 inmates died, with other estimates running as high as 25,000, due to starvation, cold, and physical exhaustion. Adding insult to injury, the canal turned out to be too narrow and shallow for most boats, so there is little to no traffic on the canal today.
San Francisco Bay Bridge: 28 deaths
Opening six months prior to the Golden Gate Bridge in 1936, the Bay Bridge was built as part of interstate 80 to serve as a direct connection from San Francisco to Oakland. After three years and 8300 laborers working for $7.75 a day, the almost 4.5 mile long bridge was completed. Five days of opening celebrations took place thereafter, drawing in over a million people and causing the greatest traffic jam in the history of San Francisco. However, over the course of construction, 28 workers were killed thereby calling for more advanced safety measures and the creation of safety nets for similar projects in the future.
Hoover Dam: 96 deaths
Built during the Great Depression as part of New Deal programs, the Hoover Dam served a number of purposes, including providing work to the jobless, controlling flooding, providing irrigation, and generating hydroelectric power. Opening in 1936, the project provided jobs to 21,000 laborers who made around $5 per every 10 hours. Official “industrial fatality” statistics provide that 96 workers died from blasting, falling, drowning, or being struck by equipment but do not take into account off site deaths from heat, sickness, or exhaustion, meaning the total number is likely much higher.
Golden Gate Bridge: 11 deaths
Known as one of the most picturesque and impressive suspension bridges in the world, the Golden Gate spans a three mile wide channel between the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean. Completed in 1937, just months after the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate was built by a series of 10 contractors that are no longer in business, so there are no official numbers on the size of the workforce employed during construction. It is recorded, however, that there were only 11 fatalities over the course of construction, 10 of which happened in a single incident when a 5 ton work platform broke. This number is low because Joseph Strauss, chief engineer, made safety a top concern, spending $130,000 on safety nets and making it the first construction site in America that required wearing hard hats. These safety nets saved a total of 19 lives, who then called themselves the “Halfway-to-Hell Club.”
Fort Peck Dam: 60 deaths
Fort Peck Dam was another major project commissioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as part of the New Deal in an effort to stimulate job growth and harness hydroelectric power. The highest of six major dams along the Missouri River, it took six long years and a workforce of 50,000 to complete. Laborers worked in three shifts, 24 hours a day for 50 cents an hour until it was opened in 1940. 60 men lost their lives over the course of construction due to falls and rugged conditions with 6 buried in the dam after a large landslide in 1938. Today Fort Peck Dam still remains one of the largest hydraulically filled earth dams in the world.
Grand Coulee Dam: 77 deaths
Built to harness the power of the Columbia River, control floods, and provide irrigation, the Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942 and today remains the single largest electric power facility in the United States. After overcoming some legislative hurdles, it took 9 years and 8,800 workers, getting paid 80 cents an hour, to complete this monumental project. Over the course of construction, 77 workers lost their lives, mainly due to falls and hazardous conditions. A third power plant was added to the dam between 1968 and 1975, claiming four more lives.
Burma-Siam Railway: 106,000 deaths
Known as the “Death Railway,” this 258 mile track was finished in 1943 by prisoners of the Japanese during World War II in an effort to connect Bangkok and Burma. A collection of 275,000 British, Dutch, American, Australian, and Asian prisoners of war completed this project in a little over a year, but at the cost of an estimated 106,000 lives due to horrific treatment, starvation, and sickness. For example, one section of the railway, called the “Hellfire Pass,” was responsible for 20% of all Australian deaths in the entirety of World War II alone. After the end of the war, Japanese leaders were tried for war crimes because of the brutalization of POWs and 32 were sentenced to death.
Mackinac Bridge: 5 deaths
Opening to traffic in 1957, the Mackinac Bridge was built to connect and improve transportation between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. Spanning approximately five miles in length, the bridge took a workforce of 3,500 people 48 months to complete what is now the third longest suspension bridge in the world. Only five workers perished during construction; one in a driving accident, one in a welding accident, one drowning, and two falling from a catwalk.
World Trade Center: 60 deaths
Completed in 1973, the World Trade Center stood as the business center of Manhattan and one of the most recognizable symbols of New York and the United States. Built by a team of 3,500 workers at a time, the 110 floor towers ranked as the fifth and sixth tallest buildings in the world at the time of their destruction in 2001. Official records state that 60 people died from construction related accidents, which is a relatively high number considering how modern the towers were.
Aswan Dam: 500 deaths
In order to protect crops and control the frequent flooding of the Nile River, construction of the Aswan Dam was started in 1960 by the Egyptian government. 10 years, 30,000 Egyptian laborers, and 500 worker fatalities later, the dam was complete and operational. However, due to its construction, more than 90,000 people were forced to relocate their homes and the quality of Egypt’s farm lands have decreased yearly due to the lack of nutrient flow from the Nile.
Sears Tower: 5 deaths
Also known as the Willis Tower, the Sears Tower was completed in 1973 and is the second tallest building in the United States and currently the 12th tallest building in the world. It took 2,000 workers three years to complete the 1,450ft giant, and almost $175 million in total costs. During construction, only five workers died in two separate incidents when a fire was started in an elevator shaft and a worker fell off of a platform on the 109th floor.
Trans-Alaska Pipeline System: 32 deaths
At 800 miles in length, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) is one of the world’s largest pipeline systems and, at the price tag of $8 billion, it is one of the largest privately financed construction projects ever undertaken. The pipeline was built as a means of transporting crude oil from the very north of Alaska to the ice-free port of Valdez, where it is loaded and shipped off to U.S. refineries. 27,300 laborers, working for between $11 and $18 an hour, had to fight extremely cold conditions and permafrost for two years until it was completed in 1977. Records state that 32 Alyeska Pipeline Service Company workers were killed over the course of construction due to harsh conditions and miscellaneous accidents.
Karakoram Highway: 1,300 deaths
Connecting the western part of China to the capital of Pakistan, the Karakoram highway runs 500 miles through some of the most treacherous terrain in Asia. Requiring a workforce of 24,000 laborers and almost 20 years of construction time, this highway is the highest paved international road in the world. With harsh climate year round, regular earthquakes, and frequent rock slides, 1,300 people lost their lives during its construction. Today, the highway exists as mainly a tourist attraction for mountaineers and cyclists.
Taipei 101: 5 deaths
Named in part for its 101 floors, the Taipei 101 or Taipei World Financial Center is currently the sixth tallest building in the world. Finished in 2004 after six years, $1.8 billion dollars, and a workforce of 2000, it is equipped with some of the most innovative safety features available because it sits on top of multiple fault lines and in the path of frequent monsoons. Even with all of these safety precautions, five workers died during construction when a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck the building causing cranes to collapse.
City Center Las Vegas: 6 deaths
Comprised of 76 acres and six massive towers on the strip, the $9.2 billion CityCenter in Las Vegas is the largest privately financed development in the United States. Completed in three short years with a workforce totaling around 8,000 workers, the hotels were open to the public by the end of 2009. Six workers died over the course of construction, two from falling and four from being struck or crushed by objects, causing workers to refer to the project as “CityCemetery” and strike briefly in 2008 due to poor safety conditions.
Gotthard Base Tunnel: 8 deaths
Estimated project completion date of 2016
Billed as the longest and deepest traffic tunnel in the world, the Gotthard Base Tunnel will serve as Switzerland’s new rail link through the Alps. If is often refered to as the project of the century and it’s 20 year construction timeline reflects it’s scope. Upon it’s completion (estimated to be in 2016) the $10.3 billion U.S. (9.8 billion Swiss francs) tunnel will boast 94 miles of tunnels, shafts, and passages.
Qatar World Cup: 6,750 deaths
Estimated completion date of 2022 and projected death estimates used
In order to host the World Cup in 2022, Qatar building nine new stadiums, while renovating three and building the infrastructure to host the matches, players, and fans. New roads, metro and rail systems, accommodations, and even cities are being built as part of the promised infrastructure all at the cost of thousands of migrant worker lives. As of March 2021, an estimated 6,750 migrant workers have died working the venues and infrastructure to host the 2022 World Cup. Due to the combination of heat exhaustion, long hours, poor living conditions, and contracts that can trap workers for up to five years, as many as two million migrant workers face slavery-like conditions with no hope of improvement. Coupled with the fact that the Qatari government is turning a blind eye to the situation and actively hiding evidence by throwing journalists into prison for reporting on the severity of the conditions, official numbers of the dead and injured could be far higher than what has been initially estimated.
Source: DIMARCO | ARAUJO | MONTEVIDEO