Construction is a risky business. Consider the classic (though staged) photograph of a line of construction workers perched on a steel beam hundreds of feet above Manhattan eating their lunch. One misstep or ill-timed backslap from a coworker could lead to a lethal plummet.
And the risks aren’t just hypothetical. Over the past 200 years, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives while working on construction projects, whether from falls, other accidents, equipment malfunctions, or unsafe and inhumane working conditions.
A new interactive 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. Designed by content marketing agency 1Point21 Interactive on behalf of a Southern California injury litigation law firm, the timeline includes some of the world’s most significant architecture and infrastructure projects, including the Panama Canal (30,609 deaths), the Grand Coulee Dam (77 deaths), and Chicago’s Sears Tower (5 deaths). The timeline also breaks down each project’s death rate per thousand workers. Some are shockingly high.
One of the most deadly projects was the Suez Canal—in the news now for the cockeyed container ship that’s lodged itself in the channel and blocked one of the world’s most important shipping passageways. 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% of its workforce.
The most recent high-death-toll project on the list is the multifaceted building of stadiums and infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. According to recent reporting from The Guardian, at least 6,500 migrant workers in Qatar have died over the past decade, with many of those deaths connected directly or indirectly to the World Cup projects and questionable labor-rights practices. The timeline’s creators used readily available data about all the represented projects, including from media reports such as The Guardian’s. (Qatar’s government disputes these figures.)
The timeline also includes some surprisingly nonlethal 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.
In recent years, deaths on major construction sites have become more rare, as safety protocols, labor rights, and equipment have improved. The timeline only includes four projects from the 21st century: the Taipei World Financial Center (5 deaths), City Center Las Vegas (6 deaths), Switzerland’s Gotthard Base Tunnel (8 deaths), and the Qatar World Cup (6,750 related deaths). Despite the Qatari government’s assertions that not all the deaths of migrant workers are connected to the World Cup, the scale of those deaths is what inspired the creation of the timeline, according to Josh Blackburn of 1Point21 Interactive.
“The construction industry is still one of the most dangerous industries worldwide. Overall, however, it has become much, much safer. I think a big part of that is the access to information that can put a microscope on problem projects like what is happening in Qatar,” he says. “You can’t really sweep a disregard for human life under the rug as easily as you could in times past.”