Once when my daughter was very small and we were dining in a seafood restaurant, she looked at her placemat and was puzzled. The paper placemat was illustrated with colorful pictures of pirates, and she was wondering why so many of them had wooden legs. I suppose I explained that loss of limbs is an occupational hazard of pirates.
In fact, every occupation has its hazards. The computer keyboard on which I’m typing has affixed to its underside a label warning of the possibility that prolonged or improper use may cause me injury. I used to suffer from work-related back pain until I realized that my contact lens prescription was causing me to hunch over toward the computer screen. Probably the most severe occupational hazard associated with white-collar occupations is workplace stress, which can cause many severe illnesses, as I explain in some detail in 150 Best Low-Stress Jobs.
However, stress-related illnesses, as well as back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome, are not as irreversible as loss of a limb–or loss of life. Pirates are not the only workers who run a risk of dying on the job. Workplace fatalities seem to be trending downward, but some industries still are risky. The 2007 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries shows that construction leads all other private-sector industry sectors in workplace fatalities, followed by transportation and warehousing. The large industry sector called agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting was next in rate of fatalities, but the more specific fishing and logging industries were among the highest. Workplace homicides were up by 13 percent in 2007, after reaching a historic low the previous year.
Paul Fussell, in his book Class, A Guide Through the American Status System, argues that hazardous work is one marker of the American system of social class. He speculates about the uproar that would be heard in the media if the ceilings of office buildings suddenly started collapsing as often as do those of mine tunnels.
Another marker of social class that Fussell mentions is dentition. David Shipler, in his book The Working Poor, describes a woman who can’t get a better job than stocking shelves and working a cash register at her local Wal-Mart at $6.80 per hour. (You may read the relevant excerpt here.) She lacks health insurance, and her lack of teeth (or good replacements) causes her to look 10 years older than she is and get passed over for promotion. ”If she had not been poor,” he writes, ”she would not have lost her teeth, and if she had not lost her teeth, perhaps she would not have remained poor.” In this case, the physical condition is not the result of an occupational hazard, like the pirates’ loss of limbs. Rather, the physical condition affects what work is available. If this Wal-Mart worker were missing a limb, she might be able to request appropriate accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But for those who lack teeth, the law does not provide any help.
A recent research study shows that the woman Shipler described is not alone in her predicament. Sherry Glied and Matthew Neidell of Columbia University found that people who spent their childhood in geographical areas with fluoridated water earn an average of 4% more than those growing up without fluoridated water. The effect is larger on women than on men, and it is found almost entirely among those growing up in families of low socioeconomic status. They conclude that employer discrimination against people with less healthy dentition is the main reason for the difference in earnings.