Extremely Dangerous Jobs of the 20th Century
By Jack Ripley | October 12, 2023
It was a dangerous job, but someone had to carve the presidents into Mt. Rushmore
Have you heard the phrase “it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it?” That could apply any of the dangerous and death defying jobs from the 20th century that we’ve catalogued here. Regardless of where they lived, people have always wanted to provide for their families. In some instances that meant that they had to get into a profession that put them in harm’s way on a day to day basis.
Throughout time men and women have always risen to the challenge of accomplishing something great. Whether they were working on the Eiffel Tower or inventing products that change the way we live today, they worked through intense situations and came out the other side a better person. How would you have stacked up at these dangerous jobs from the 20th century? Upwards and onwards.
In the 1920s, the state historian of South Dakota, Doane Robinson, had an idea to boost tourism in the Black Hills: carve historic figures into “the Needles,” several large granite pillars. Eventually, Mount Rushmore was chosen as the site for Gutzon Borglum to begin the project depicting four of America’s important figures. Calvin Coolidge delivered the dedication speech in 1927 and around 400 workers set out to chip away at the rock. Or, to be more exact, to hammer, drill, dynamite and chisel their way into the mountain, removing 450,000 tons of rock as they sculpted the faces. While the debris of the mountain was left where it fell, no lives were lost in the process.
Whether that means driving all night, or putting their pedal to the metal while Sunday drivers clog up the highway, truckers are going to get where they need to be on time. This dedication to punctuality can be dangerous, and many drivers who try to beat the clock can end up victims of their own need to succeed.
Only the most courageous of men could fell redwoods in the early 1900s
Redwood trees are some of the largest and oldest organisms on Earth. The redwoods resist decay and are fire tolerant, and of course, are highly desirable for their wood. This wood was even more desirable after the 1906 earthquake damaged much of San Francisco. The most sought-after part of the tree was, of course, the hardest to get: the top. In the early days, the fellers were raised on scaffolds. They wedged boards into the sides of the tree so they had a place to stand and cut. After the tree was felled, the bucker cut off the limbs and cut the tree into more manageable lengths. Then the peeler went to work removing the bark. Yes, the tools that they used were quite dangerous, but the shear size of the trees increased the danger even more.
Many overhead powerline workers in 1952, in Nagoya, Japan were in for a shock
The overhead powerline workers are unsung heroes, keeping our lights on, while performing a risky job. Today, we have plenty of regulations to protect overhead powerline workers but despite that, according to some studies, the majority of electrocution injuries and fatalities happen to overhead powerline workers. The death rate is between 17 and 23 per thousand workers over a working lifetime of 45 years. Working with overhead powerlines has the obvious hazard of electrocution, but poses other dangers as well. People can die and be injured from falls, can be hit by falling objects, and can be injured by burns, over-exhaustion, and a number of other potential hazards such as sprains, cuts, contusions, etc.
Bringing New York and New Jersey together with the George Washington Bridge was a deadly business
The George Washington Bridge is an engineering marvel connecting New York and New Jersey. It took 100 years to design and the final design was created by Othmar Ammann. Construction began in 1927 with the two towers the first section to be built. They had to work 75 feet below the water level to work on the towers. Shortly after construction began, three men drowned when the coffer dam buckled and released the full power of the Hudson. One man died because an explosive was improperly placed in the Palisades rock, and the most publicized deaths occurred when three men fell into the concrete that was being poured, entombing them forever.
A Chicago police officer examines thirteen bullet holes in a glass window at the scene of an attempted murder, Chicago 1920s.
Police officers are aware of the risks that they take daily on their jobs, especially in cities like Chicago. And yes, the criminal statistics are pretty grim. In the 1920s, an era we sometimes look at with nostalgia, the statistics were equally grim and being a crime fighter was dangerous. Why? Chicago was run by the mob, specifically under Al Capone. Capone was involved in all sorts of rackets, from alcohol and gambling to prostitution and extortion. They used guns, as well as bombs (yes, bombs). While some of the killings were random, some were also targeted. Capone’s gang went after lawyers, newspaper reporters, police officers, and even saloon owners. Politics and organized crime were intertwined during the time, and sometimes, when the murders were being investigated, they hit a wall of silence.
This deep-sea diver gets big air, 1915
We have been diving in the oceans since the ancients went looking for food and other resources. While we don’t think about this job as a particularly dangerous one, there are some dangers lurking beneath the surface. Of course, when we think of the hazards of the oceans, we imagine animals, particularly sharks. The biggest danger however, is one that we don’t even consider while on land: oxygen. As you dive, you have to remember to breathe naturally (and not hold your breath) so that you don’t get the bends. As you rise and the pressure changes, you have to make sure that you do it at the right pace.
This acrobatic man "enjoys" a cup of tea on a construction beam
This job may be an acrophobics worst choice of employment. Not only does the construction worker who works on the beams of skyscrapers have to have the balance of a gymnast on the balance beam, but he has to be aware of how the wind will affect his movement, taking cautions to add extra weight and lower his center of gravity. In addition to the dangers of falling, ironworkers who walk these beams have to carry heavy tools and work outdoors in grueling heat or frigid temperatures. The dangers run the gamut from simple, like crushing a finger, to, of course, falling.
Divers in the late 19th century were saddled with suits more than three times their weight
Modern diving poses risks, while diving before modern innovations was even more hazardous than it is today. Divers ran risks from nitrogen narcosis, hypoxia, decompression sickness, not to mention drowning. More modern suits, not like the diving bell of Aristotle’s time, were designed to maintain pressure close to that of the surface. These atmospheric diving suits, or ADS were first designed in 1882, and the first design weighed 830 pounds and was designed to withstand the punishing physiological effects of diving, specifically the bends. They are designed to allow divers to reach depths of up to 2000 feet. One of the biggest challenges was incorporating articulating joints. Despite the attempts to cope with the changing pressures, the current data suggests that diving can have long term damage, potentially even neurological damage.
A foundryman in at the Portland Stove Foundry doing his best to stay cool
To make those construction beams, as well as many of the other tools so important to daily life, the foundryman plays an important, and dangerous role. Some of the hazards of working in a foundry are quite visible. They are, after all, working with molten metal. But other hazards are not so visible. While in the foundry, the workers are exposed to all sorts of chemicals and substances in the air. Although awareness has of the dangers of these chemicals has lessened exposure to them, foundry workers are still in danger of lung cancer and other diseases that result from exposure.
A young coal miner putting his life on the line to help his family
We have been going under ground to extract coal to power our lives for centuries. Coal mining and caving create some unusual risks. In the 20th century, more than 100.000 coal miners were killed. The list of ways to die while mining coal is quite extensive. Some fatalities can be more mundane, like vehicle collisions, while others are quite specific to the job. Miners face the hazards of suffocation, roof collapse, gas poisoning, rock bursts, outbursts, and explosions. If a miner survives underground, he also runs the risk of contracting black lung and other lung diseases which can reduce life expectancy.
The heights weren't the most dangerous part of building San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge
Desperate times, call for desperate measures, and sometimes, like in the Great Depression, the desperation of poverty causes people to take risky jobs. In 1933, construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the engineering marvels of the 20th Century. It was cold and damp and often windy. Workers had to work in cramped, enclosed spaces. They had to wear respirators to protect them from the fumes from the installation of the lead-based rivulets. They also were at risk of inhaling the fumes from the lead-based paint used to protect the bridge from rust. To combat the dangers of falling, a safety net was employed and only one man fell to his death until February, 1937, when scaffolding fell through the net, creating a hole, which led to 10 fatalities.
Horse diving isn't for the faint of heart, regardless of whether you're watching or performing
Dangerous jobs like all of the aforementioned ones, which are necessary for survival in a civilized world are one thing, but dangerous jobs for mere entertainment, well that’s something else entirely. In New Jersey, at Steel Pier, in the middle of the 20th Century, men and women…on horses…would dive 40-60 feet into the water below the pier. While there were no fatalities recorded, there were a few injuries. These were mainly broken bones sustained while working with the animals. However, there was one unusual injury. A rider in 1931, Sonora Carver, entered the water with her eyes open and went blind. Incidentally, she continued performing and lived to be 99.
Jet fighters live la vida loca
It seems like the ultimate adrenaline rush, or at least Tom Cruise creates that image. But being a jet fighter has real danger. One would think that the most dangerous part of the job would be getting hit by enemy fire, but that’s not necessarily the case. If you have to eject from the plane, there’s a one-in-ten chance that you won’t survive, and you definitely will sustain injuries. Because the jets require a lot of fuel and they cannot carry so much weight, pilots have to refuel in midair. In terms of midair collisions, pilots have to worry about birds. Since the jets are moving so fast, hitting a bird poses real dangers. While the pilot probably won’t die, they may end up with some injuries from the impact.
John F. Kennedy campaigning in coal country, 1960
If asked what the most dangerous job in the world was, most people would go to the obvious, like firefighter or policeman. Statistically, the job with the highest percentage chance of dying on the job, is President. Eight of the Presidents have died while in office. When you consider that the position has only been held by 45 men, that’s pretty significant. Four Presidents died because of the office they held. In other words, they were assassinated. The other four died of natural causes, but two of them died from ill health that may have been exacerbated by the stress of the office, one of them died after getting sick after standing in the cold for his ridiculously long inauguration speech, although some believe that he may have contracted typhoid from the contaminated water at the White House. It is possible that the fourth may have died from the same causes.
Painters working on the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge could only work on days with perfect weather and no wind
As if constructing a bridge wasn’t difficult enough, they need to have regular maintenance. The Bronx-Whitestone Bridge was opened in 1941 and was similar in design to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Tacoma, Washington. Once that bridge collapsed, the public was concerned about the safety of the Bronx-Whitestone. To reduce oscillation and potential failure because of high winds, two steel cables were installed and the bridge was modified in other ways. In 1953, the bridge was painted, for the first time in six years. The painters had to work in the right conditions to reduce danger. The coat of paint itself is a protective measure as it keeps the steel from corroding. The Bronx-Whitestone Bridge is not as challenging as the Golden Gate though, which requires almost continuous painting.
Delivering mail by plane in 1918 could end in tragedy or infamy
Today, we joke about the dangers that dogs pose to mail carriers. In the early days of flight, the method of delivery was the danger. From 1918 -1927, 230 men flew Jenny’s to deliver mail. Of those, 32 died in plane crashes. These early flights could only occur during the day because of the light. The first pilot was only guided by a map which he had on his lap as he flew.The dangers of this job didn’t deter young men from applying. They saw the fame Jack Knight received after his dangerous night flight to deliver the mail to Chicago.
A London telephone engineer attaches a phone cable 50 feet in the air, no big deal
Some jobs look a lot more dangerous than they actually are. While telephone wire installers look like they have a terrifying job, hanging out in mid-air trying to create a more connected world, it is not as bad as it seems. One of the most challenging aspects of wiring the world for the telephone was joining the wires together. In some cases, the wires had to cross bodies of water. The wires needed a support wire as well, and to attach them, the worker had to sit in a bo’sun’s (or boatswain’s) chair, suspended 50 feet in the air. These chairs were originally just made of a small plank or a piece of heavy canvas
Navy SEAL boarding a ship, what did you do today?
Navy SEALs, the primary special ops force for the Navy. To become a SEAL, candidates must undergo rigorous physical training and pass a difficult physical test. They are required to enter dangerous situations, boarding ships to combat piracy, terrorism and other threats. They have to follow visit, board, search, and seizure protocol and when they are boarding a ship, they rappel in three waves. The first wave must board to provide cover fire to protect the subsequent waves. They have to protect the perimeter of the boat, both with helicopters and boats. They are in danger from enemy fire and so have to take these measures to safely execute their missions.
Photographer Charles Clyde Ebbets risks his life for the perfect photo
Clyde Ebbets was a photographer who was published in major newspapers. In 1932, he took his most famous photo, “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” on the 69th floor of the RCA building, which was under construction at the time. The picture of 11 men sitting on a girder with their legs dangling has had worldwide circulation. Ebbets later moved to Florida, where he would photograph images of the growth of tourism in the state. He took pictures of the aftermath of the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that devastated the Keys and was granted permission to photograph the Seminole Indians during their Sacred Green Corn Dance. He broke his back while taking pictures in the Everglades.
Phyllis Latour Doyle hid secret codes in her knitting to avoid detection by the Nazis
If you choose to be a spy, you accept that this will be a career choice fraught with danger. Phyllis Latour was initially a flight mechanic for the WAAF in 1941. She did not hesitate to become a spy when asked after joining the WAAF. She worked for a year in Aquitaine, using the codename Genevieve. She then parachuted into Normandy on May 1, 1944 with the code name Paulette. She rode a bicycle, selling soap, and chatting with German soldiers to obtain military intelligence. She carried knitting with her so that she could encode the silk she used to tie up her hair.
It's lonely at the top, steel riggers in New York get to work
The term riggers comes from sailing ships and the rigger is the person who uses the rigging, the heavy ropes, to hoist sails. While people do still use riggers on sailboats, now, the term is used for anyone who has to hoist heavy objects. They attach loads to cranes and structures. They use chains, winches, lifts, cables, and other tools to lift objects and have to rely on quick calculations and must use a variety of suspension techniques to maneuver their load around any obstacles. Because they are working with extremely heavy loads and in some challenging situations, they run the risk of injury.
The beauty of space is only paralleled by how terrifying it is
Most people do not face the dangers that astronauts do. One such danger is losing physical contact with the vessel while in space. Because of the nature of space, it would be near impossible to return to the ship without assistance. SAFER was designed as a means of self-rescue should an astronaut ever get separated from the vehicle during a spacewalk and no other means of rescue are available. SAFER is essentially a backpack system that acts as a jetpack. Luckily no astronauts have had to use one, but it is better to be safe than sorry.
Hopefully the guys in this bullet proof vest test were friends
One outcome of McKinley’s assassination in 1901 was the Army’s introduction of soft body armor. They tried silk, but it could only withstand low-velocity bullets. So they continued to try to develop effective lightweight bulletproof clothing. In order to determine whether the new bulletproof vests were going to work, they had to be tested. Once they were developed, they needed to be sold. And to be sold, their efficaciousness needed to be demonstrated. For the demonstration, an officer had to fire a revolver on a man wearing the vest. While no one was killed during these demonstrations, there was the danger of injury because no material is completely bullet proof, but more bullet resistant.
Two workers on the Empire State Building admire their work from 1,000 feet in the air
Yet another job not for those who are afraid of heights, there were 3,400 men who worked on the construction of the Empire State Building. Some of them were of European descent, while others were Mohawk. As one worker said, the Mohawk were fearless while working so high above ground. At least they seemed to be. Construction started on March 17, 1930 and finished on May 1, 1931. The iconic 86-story building held the title of the world’s tallest building for a time, and construction workers had to take the risk of falling to their deaths. According to official records though, only five workers died during construction. Its construction was captured extensively in photographs, allowing those of us unwilling to scale to those heights a view of what the workers must have seen.
If a tree falls in the woods
We trim trees for a variety or reasons, from our concerns about their proximity to electric wires, to our concerns for the health of the tree. There are proper ways of trimming trees, of course. And in some cases, some dangers are not quite so obvious. A tree trimmer runs the risk of getting hit by falling branches. They also run the risk of injuring themselves on their tools. And if they don’t trim the tree properly, they may weaken the tree. A weakened tree may appear to be strong, but may pose a danger as branches may break off or the entire tree may fall.
When you're painting the Eiffel Tower you've got to look good
When the Eiffel Tower opened in 1889, it was reddish brown. A decade later, to keep up with fashion, it was painted yellow. It has been several other colors before its current color, Eiffel Tower Brown, which it has been sporting since 1968. It is painted in progressively lighter shades, three altogether, to allow it to stand out against the sky. While bridges are painted to protect them from rust and corrosion, the Eiffel Tower is painted to maintain its youthful beauty. Its beauty regimen requires 60 tons of paint applied every seven years. This job, as with quite a few others is dangerous because of the height of the tower.
What's that sound? It's workers playing harmonica during the construction of the Rockefeller Center skyscraper in New York City, 1932
Working so high in the air is stressful, as you can imagine. Working on the construction of a skyscraper raises all sorts of logistical questions. Some of the questions have easy solutions, while some are not so straightforward. As shown in one of the iconic photographs from the construction of the RCA building, sometimes you just need to eat your lunch in the air. And how do you relieve stress? This group of workers took a break to sit back, relax, and play their harmonicas with the stunning views that sitting on a steel girder overlooking Manhattan can provide.
' Ello guvna, Manchester City detectives pose on a break from solving crimes
This group seems to resemble Chicago mobsters, but in reality, they are the good guys. Constable Sir John Maxwell, of the Manchester City Police led the force through a time of change, with the development of the use of forensic science labs and the introduction of a police radio network. Of course, these new technologies were meant to help police and detectives, but as most people know, change can bring stress. Being a detective is a dangerous job under normal circumstances, but Maxwell’s tenure seemed to have unusual stressors. He served during the wartime era and retired in 1942, possibly exhausted by the extra duties during this time.
Race car drivers in the 1940s cheated dath every time they hit the track
Most people are aware of the dangers of driving a car at 180 mph, with crashing being the most obvious and spectacular. There are other hidden dangers as well. Drivers can be exposed to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Another danger is the blood clots that can form since the drivers spend so much time sitting without moving. Midget cars are especially dangerous. They are very small, weighing only 900 pounds. Despite their small size, they are extremely powerful, having up to 400 horsepower. To improve their safety, they now come equipped with full roll cages as well as other safety features
A man working in hat manufacture with no protective equipment, putting him at risk for mercury poisoning, 1938
It is hard to imagine a less dangerous job than making hats, but it turns out that it was quite dangerous. Hatters made their wares using a process called carroting. This process required the hatters to wash their felt with a solution containing mercury nitrate. As they used the solution, the workers would be exposed to mercury vapors in the air. The mercury attacks the nervous system, leading to mercury poisoning and causing drooling, hair loss, twitching, and difficulty thinking. Mercury poisoning could even lead to hallucinations. In 1941, the United States finally banned the use of mercury in the production of felt.
Chimney sweeps were lucky if they didn't get carcinoma
As delightful as it is to think of Santa Claus descending the chimneys of every house each December, the job of chimney sweep is not so delightful. The title “chimney sweep” stirs images of faces covered in soot, but there is more danger than blackened skin for this job. There is always the respiratory danger of inhaling soot, which can lead to illnesses and infections. Physical contact with soot can lead to skin irritations, rashes, and infections. Exposure to creosote can cause visual issues from chemical burns. Of course, we still rely on chimney sweeps today, but they are trained to be safe.
Working with glow-in-the-dark radioactive paint gave the “Radium Girls” radiation poisoning
Marie Curie discovered radium in the 1890s. With World War I underway, the United States Radium Corporation began hiring working class girls, offering them more than three times the average factory job. The girls were hired to paint the faces of watches with radium. By the ends of their shifts, they would glow in the dark. They painted their dresses and sometimes even painted their teeth. Even if they didn’t deliberately make themselves glow, they ingested a little bit of the radium every time they used the painting technique they were taught. They were not told about the dangers of exposure and gradually the radium girls started to get sick and die
The "Kiss of Death” happened when weavers sucked thread through the eye of a shuttle, it was both dangerous and unsanitary
The kiss of death certainly sounds ominous. Workers in the textile mills worked with an old tool, called a shuttle. Each shuttle had a pirn, a hollow space for holding the thread. The weaver would pull the thread through using her breath. This practice was not considered problematic, let alone dangerous, until the late 19th Century when people were dying from consumption. About the same time that weavers began dying at a higher rate than the general population, a German bacteriologist discovered the bacteria causing the disease. They eventually made the connection and discovered that even one infected worker could cause an outbreak in a factory. While factories introduced metal needles to stop the spread of the disease, some continued to practice the kiss of death, until a law was passed in Massachusetts.
These sailors aboard the Garthsnaid bring a new meaning to phrase "sea sick"
Sailing is one of the more dangerous sports. And so working on a sailing ship can be just as dangerous. There are, of course, the obvious dangers, in particular, encountering violent weather. Because of the motion of the sailboat, there is always a danger of falling overboard. However, there is also a danger of falling on the boat itself and getting injured. Additionally, as the ship sways, there is also the chance that a heavy item that is not secured could come lose and hit a passenger. Most sailng fatalities are from drowning, but with many of those deaths, the individual had not worn a lifejacket.
Breaker boys sorting coal when they should be in school
Anthracite is a type of coal that may be a bit safer than the standard bituminous coal. It is harder and burns longer. However, it still needs to be extracted from the earth, like regular coal and has its own dangers. They ran the risk of being crushed in a tunnel collapse or killed in an explosion. There were also minor injuries to young “breaker boys,” boys who worked to pick bits of rock out of the coal. As they did so, they would often bloody their fingers. And, of course, as with those who worked with bituminous coal, there was the constant danger of black lung.
Bethlehem Steel workers on their last day of work in October 1983
We are so aware of the dangers of asbestos in housing products today that we hire contractors to remove it from our homes so that we don’t risk exposure. Steel workers, who had to perform dangerous jobs already, were unknowingly exposed to this carcinogen, a mineral that is found in the soil and rocks. When it is released into the air and inhaled, it can cause lung cancer. In the steel mills, asbestos was used insulator for machinery and equipment, was used in protective clothing, and was used in some of the building materials, such as the tiles, for the mills themselves.
Firefighters calling for water in the 1980s
It’s an understatement to say that firefighters put their life on the line whenever they go to work. There’s the constant question of when will they have to face a major blaze, and when it could be the one to wipe them out. Of course this isn’t simply a 20th century problem, firefighters have been saving people for generations but it’s only in the late 20th century that their actions have been captured so vividly. These firefighters calling for water in this photo are obviously in the midst of a stressful situation, but that’s nothing new for these guys.
Two strapping fishermen wait to go out to sea
The life of a fisherman is one of early mornings, uneasy seas, and weather that can’t be trusted. The folks who dedicated themselves to this job in the early 20th century didn’t do so because they looked cool in a cable knit sweater, but because they needed to provide for their families. In times of bounty and famine they woke up before the sun to try and catch some fish. The life of a fisherman was that waiting for the good and dealing with the bad. Many men lost their lives while fishing in rough seas, but no one complained, that was simply their way of life.
Roofers baking in the sun
Most readers are lucky enough to have avoided spending time on a hot roof, baking under the summer sun. Roofing is a deceptively dangerous job. Not only is there the very real possibility of falling off the roof and getting a few broken ribs, but if a roofer isn’t safe, and they don’t drink enough water then they run the risk of getting sun stroke, or at the very east a hellacious sun burn. Full time roofers don’t have the luxury to work for a couple hours in the morning and again at night, they have to be up there all day to make sure they get the job done.
A grizzled trucker shows off his choice machine
A fascination sprung up around trucking in the 1970s that made the profession seem like it was something that people did when they wanted to have fun and make a couple extra bucks, but that’s far from the truth. Truckers have earned a reputation for being the pirates of the highway, but that’s because they have to bend the rules a little to make sure their load’s delivered in time. Whether that means driving all night, or putting their pedal to the metal while Sunday drivers clog up the highway, truckers are going to get where they need to be on time. This dedication to punctuality can be dangerous, and many drivers who try to beat the clock can end up victims of their own need to succeed.