Some jobs can kill. Over time is tough and malfunctioning office equipment is
a pain. Inept coworkers slow everything down. These things wear on a person, but
they won?t kill anyone.
When most people punch their time cards in the morning, they do so with the
knowledge that they?ll be punching out in the afternoon. Not everyone is so
The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts out an annual list of the ten most
dangerous jobs as measured by fatalities; but often, like other statistics, you
don?t get the complete picture. And as you?ll see here, it?s not even close. Its
focus is too narrow, ignoring too many dangers that are not considered, like
severe injuries or long-term health effects. The BLS list also ignores
professions not visible on their official radar screen.
When we talk about dangerous jobs, we?re not talking paper cuts, carpal
tunnel syndrome, a boss that gives you headaches or a workplace with lousy
coffee that puts a bad taste in your mouth. We?re talking jobs that incapacitate
and kill; or where the risk of serious injury is omnipresent. In many of these
jobs, your life might be fundamentally changed at any moment?for the worse. In
others, the danger is long term and cumulative. It won?t get you now, but
it will get you later.
In Player?s extensive survey, we present you with the real list of America?s
toughest jobs. For some, like cops and firefighters, the work is more dangerous
in urban areas; and we specify that kind of environment in our listings. But
interestingly, workers who made their money in nature, such as loggers and
fishermen, were more likely to die on the job than the aforementioned urban
The final list of the 25 most dangerous jobs in America was surprising even
to us. We ranked the professions using a sophisticated weighting system that
balanced fatality rate, short-term injury rate, long-term danger (disease
and incapacitation), and the overall “fear factor” of the work. We balanced
official with anecdotal evidence to come up with the Player list. Just how
dangerous are the professions on the list? Put it this way: When a soldier in a
war can?t even crack the top three?or a fireman, the top seven?that gives you a
sense of just how dangerous the jobs on this list are. Here?s our list: Player?s
25 most dangerous jobs in America.
They jump out of planes toward fire. Lucky for them, they don?t
land in the conflagration. Unlucky for them, they sometimes crash
into trees. If they get seriously hurt in the process, they?re helpless
until the ground crews arrive?much later. Heavily padded suits help
shield smokejumpers against trees? spearing arms. But what happens
when man meets tree? Advantage: tree.
The Mann Gulch Fire of 1949 was the largest disaster involving
smokejumper deaths ever. A team arrived in Montana?s Helena
National Forest to fight a wildfire. While they headed toward the
Missouri River, the blaze spread quickly and cut off the path to
safety. The foreman survived by lighting an escape fire into which he
tried to move his crew, and two others were able to seek safety in a
rock crevice. Thirteen smokejumpers were killed by the blaze.
There have been no smoke jumping deaths since that event, but
jumping into large fires with little hope of rescue if things get dicey
gets brownie points for danger.
Danger Factor: Jumping into massive fires, but no deaths in
57 years mitigates the risk.
Pay Scale: Pay is minimal; you do it for the adventure and to save trees
Perks: Thrill seekers who love fresh air (at least until the air is thick
with smoke) get plenty of both.
Profile: Adventure seekers with a cause.
24. Atomic Power and Chemical Plant Worker
Nuclear contamination is scary. You?ve heard about the horrors
suffered by the Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the
dropping of the atomic bomb. On April 26, 1986, history?s worst
nuclear accident occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine, when a nuclear
reactor blew up, officially contaminating five million people. The
radiation spread to Belarus and Russia. Anywhere from 100,000
to 500,000 deaths (depending upon the information source cited)
have already been attributed to this catastrophe. Add in rampant
mutations, cancer and other horrors claiming lives at an astronomical
rate, and you get a glimpse into the nightmare possible from a
Now, adding to that fear, imagine working around noxious or
radioactive elements all day long, every day. We can?t help think
that?s pretty bad, regardless of what the company says or the
government claims. There are too many examples in the past where,
badly paraphrasing a court?s instructions to the witness: we didn?t get
the truth, we didn?t get the whole truth and we got nothing near the
The bosses say it?s safe? The government gives its okay? Sorry,
partner, if you believe that, you must have been born yesterday.
The hard truth is that when it comes to money, the people at the
top? hether it?s business or government?couldn?t give a rat?s ass
about your health or whether you live or die. Or become diseased
and suffer. It?s all about the money.
Exposure to an atomic plant or toxic fumes can?t be good. In fact,
it won?t be good. Cancer and disease in their many horrific forms
might be the result.
Danger Factor: Short term, birth defects are possible. Long
term, the horrors are real.
Pay Scale: You probably get a decent salary, but?
Perks: Whatever you get, enjoy.
Profile: It?s a job.
23. TollBooth worker
Being a tollbooth operator is dangerous? Hell, yes. You won?t see
these workers on any other list of dangerous occupations, but think
about this scenario: As part of a paid experiment, you?re asked to
have your breathing supply directly connected to a car?s exhaust pipe.
A company wants to find out if this will increase the likelihood that
you?ll get various illnesses like cancer, emphysema and respiratory
problems. The test time is one week, but the company warns you: It?s
a very risky experiment?you may well contract these maladies and
Would you voluntarily do it? We wouldn?t.
So what?s the connection? Tollbooth operators are not hooked up
to an exhaust pipe of a car, but what they do is pretty damn close.
The majority of the air in their booth is exhaust from cars. Or worse,
it?s diesel exhaust from trucks. Every time a vehicle pulls out, a trail
of noxious, carcinogenic smoke is left behind. Invariably, a portion
of it goes into their lungs. Can you imagine the air quality in and
around those tollbooths, where their heads reside? Don?t try to.
Tollbooth operators spend all day trapped in a little box, breathing
in fumes from the huffing and puffing of surrounding vehicles. Given
enough years of this, they?ll be huffing and puffing trying to get air
into their own systems. No job?not even a traffic cop?s or gas station
attendant?s workplace?is exposed to as many automotive exhaust
fumes, and ultimately, as many carcinogens, as a toll-booth operator.
Bottom line: This is no week-long experiment. This is your life.
Sorry, Doubting Thomases?this job is dangerous.
Danger Factor: You?re sucking in carcinogens.
Pay Scale: It?s a living, no more.
Profile: Regular people trying to get by.
22. Microchip Manufacturer
The process of making microchips requires exposure to arsenic,
ethylene-based glycol ethers, various acids, phosphine and scores of
other chemically hazardous substances. The Silicon Valley Toxics
Coalition, an environmental watchdog, says that there is only
sufficient data on about 2% of the chemicals used in the manufacture
of chips. The other 98 percent? All we can say is: Lord have mercy.
What?s the payoff to exposure from toxic chemicals? High
miscarriage rate, deformed babies, cancer, respiratory and skin
problems?you get the idea.
But if you don?t, think about these two incidents, also involving
various chemicals and effluents. In 1985 the dangerous dioxin levels
of Times Beach, Missouri, 17 miles southwest of St. Louis, caused the
government to buy out this town of 2,240 residents for $32 million;
everyone was evacuated and the area quarantined. Want more? In
Love Canal, New York, an extremely high rate of cancer, birth defects
and constantly sick children led to an environmental investigation.
The residents suspected that the industrial dump used by the Hooker
Chemical Company was the cause, and indeed, the residents were
correct. In 1980 President Carter declared a state of emergency and
evacuated the town.
Moral of the story: Anytime you?re exposed to toxic chemicals,
it ain?t good.
Danger Factor: Short term: birth defects. Long term:
Pay Scale: Decent for unskilled manual labor.
Perks: You get a paycheck.
Profile: Tedious, repetitive work. It?s a job.
21. Bounty Hunter
Bail enforcement agents must chase violent criminals for sheer
pleasure. They sure as hell don?t do it for the pay, which is about
$150 for the average fugitive. They typically earn their fee by getting
a percentage of the bail-jumper?s bond; the higher that bond,
presumably, the more dangerous the customer, the more a bounty
hunter earns his pay.
In many states, bounty hunters are forbidden to carry firearms, and
therefore find themselves potentially outgunned (if they?re following
the rules) by the bail-jumpers they?re paid to capture. They?re given
greater legal freedom in capturing fugitives including, sometimes,
using excessive force. Bounty hunters are allowed to break and enter
without a warrant, detain suspects, and chase them across the country
(except for three states, which have disallowed this profession).
The most famous bail enforcement agent is Duane “Dog”
Chapman, star of Dog the Bounty Hunter, a reality show about Mr.
Chapman?s exploits. His most notorious case was the apprehension
of rapist Andrew Luster, heir to the Max Factor fortune, in Mexico.
Bounty hunting is illegal there, and after capturing the American
fugitive, Chapman was accused of kidnapping by the Mexican
government. Later, he was accused of being a fugitive himself when
he returned to the United States!
Domino Harvey, renowned for being a fashion model and at the
same time a bail enforcement agent, used her feminine wiles as a
weapon to help her capture drug dealers and the occasional murderer
in South Central L.A. When her beauty didn?t work, she had Betsy?that was the name of her sawed-off shotgun.
There are no figures on just how dangerous bounty hunting is,
but when you?re chasing violent law breakers who don?t want to get
caught, the ante on safety is heightened. And keep this in mind on
the danger factor: Bounty hunters have no formal training for their jobs.
Danger Factor: You?re trying to bring in criminals; this can?t be that safe.
Pay Scale: Pay isn?t typically that much, though bigger fish (with bigger
risk) get bigger rewards.
Perks: The thrill of the chase.
Profile: Tough nuts making a tough living.
20. War Correspondent
Kidnapping, torture, crippling injuries and death are all a real part of
what can happen to you. Want to apply? Oh, and you?re in the middle of
a war zone where Americans are hated. Still interested?
The job: War correspondent. You can do the reporting, or if you like
more danger, how about some on-the-job photos? In either case, your job
is to get in the middle of the action and get the live scoop.
You?re a correspondent, but you think the enemy knows the
difference? If they don?t, you?re a target and you?re in trouble. If they do,
it may work for you, but then again it may not. In 2002, Daniel Pearl, a
Wall Street Journal correspondent, was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan
and killed. And in 2003 in Iraq, Time magazine reporter Michael
Weisskopf lost his right hand to a grenade tossed into a patrol vehicle.
Since March 2003, two American correspondents have been killed in
Iraq. Considering the paucity of reporters there, it?s a very high fatality
Explosives make no distinctions betweens soldiers and correspondents.
And opposing soldiers, frankly, do not care. Bottom line: When your job
takes you into a war zone, that?s flirting with trouble. And it gets you on
Danger Factor: Extreme.
Pay Scale: Decent to good; you?re hoping you get a chance to cash the
Perks: Excitement, being in the middle of the action, good career move?if
you make it.
Profile: You have to be intrepid, love danger, action and getting the
news story firsthand.
19. Iron AND Steel Worker
Construction workers, particularly ones that work on high elevations
like skyscrapers, face all sorts of serious injuries, and possible death in
pursuit of a living. Despite harnesses and other safety gear, falling long
distances off tall buildings occurs. There is a reason that the prices to insure
high-altitude construction workers are among the highest of all workers.
With a death rate of 47 per 100,000 in 2004 and 56 per 100,000 in
2005, as measured by the BLS, structural iron and steel workers ranked
fourth on their list of most lethal jobs.
It?s scary up high, especially if the weather isn?t good. Things happen.
This job is dangerous. If you don?t think so, go up there yourself and try it
out. We thought so?
Danger Factor: One slip of the foot.
Pay Scale: Generally good.
Perks: Good views, you get to wear a hard hat.
Profile: Tough, fearless dudes.
18. Maximum Security Prison Guard
Every working moment you are exposed to dangerous, ruthless
criminals. Your job is to guard and control the most violent elements of
America?rapists, murderers, sadists, serial killers, gang members? en
who are lifers in the system with little left to lose and little regard for
human life. They hate you for what you represent and who you are. If you
show mercy, they won?t?you?ll be seen as weak. If you show no mercy,
they?ll wait for their opportunity to get even. It may never come, but then
again, it might.
Yes, the guards have clubs. Yes, they?re outside the bars. But even if
they?re extremely careful, things still happen. In 1971, a riot at Attica
claimed the lives of 11 guards, 32 inmates, and caused serious injury to 89
others (four of them guards). In 1980, at New Mexico State Prison, seven
guards were beaten, stabbed, burned or raped. Somehow they all lived.
Thirty-three prisoners, however, did not. These are just the big incidents
that get national attention. In maximum security, every day is an adventure
you won?t hear about on the news. Danger is always one angry con away.
The numbers work against you. There are guard shortages in correctional
facilities across America. How about a proportion of 15 guards to 1,136
inmates? These were the numbers in New Mexico State Prison when all hell
In addition to the physical danger, add in high rates of alcoholism and
smoking among guards due to the daily stress, and you have a job that
clearly cuts the mustard as one of the most dangerous jobs in America.
Danger Factor: High. How would like to be Hannibal Lecter?s guard?
Pay Scale: Hard, stressful work for not much money.
Perks: Weekly check; outlet for sadists who like beating on people. Get
to go home every night.
Profile: Guys tough enough to deal with the most dangerous criminals.
17. Alaskan Bush Pilot
Flying small planes is not necessarily dangerous. But when you?re flying
in an environment where the clear sky precipitously turns into clouds and
visibility drops to almost nothing without warning, the scenario of plane meeting-
mountain occurs far too often. When you can?t see well, fatal crash
landings into objects like trees or a suddenly rising ground take their toll.
Hopefully, when the plane stops, your life doesn?t.
As measured by the BLS, this is one of the most dangerous jobs. We
Danger Factor: Usually when you go down, your flight?s over. Permanently.
The risk here is all about the death rate, which is high.
Pay Scale: You get less than regular commercial pilots for far more risk;
many average $50,000 per year.
Perk: Enjoy beautiful scenery, lots of adventure and thrills, interesting
Profile: Outdoor eccentric types that like adventure and bush country.
16. U. S. President
You?re the leader of the most powerful nation in the world and
make decisions that may not be popular. As the highest-profile person
in the highest-profile country, you are a target for political assassins,
madmen, and malcontents. And a select few among them take an
extreme step: They attempt to end your life.
The president of the United States is an extremely perilous job,
more so than you might expect. Let?s look at the numbers. Four
presidents were assassinated: Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James
Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, and John Kennedy
in 1963. In addition, there were near-fatal attempts on six other
presidents: Andrew Jackson in 1835, Teddy Roosevelt in 1912,
Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 (as president-elect), Harry Truman in
1950, Gerald Ford in 1975, and Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Do the math. There have been forty-three U. S. presidents and ten
of them have been attacked. Four succeeded in killing their targeted
leader, and two others in injuring him. In addition, there were other
attempts that were foiled before the perpetrators got close enough for
“near-miss” status. These ten attempts are only the highly publicized
ones we know about.
But let?s stick with the ten listed. These widely known assassination
attempts occurred on nearly one out of four presidents, a 23 percent
rate, with a mortality rate of almost 10 percent. Wow. That?s
High-profile political leaders are also exposed to assassination and
qualify. Examples: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Robert
Danger Factor: Extremely high.
Pay Scale: Great pay, nice house.
Perks: Good use of willing interns.
Profile: You?re the man.
15. Offshore Oil Rigger
You?re playing with one of the most combustible materials in
the world: oil. While the level of danger depends heavily on the
location of the rig?a big floating man-made island?every rigger
is in constant peril of explosions, drowning, accidents from heavy
equipment, and kidnapping (not an uncommon occurrence). Riggers often work
16-hour shifts through the middle of the night, sometimes going as long as
a day or two without sleep. If one worker in a team loses concentration, he is a
danger to himself and his coworkers. With so many moving parts in the
engines, clothes, fingers, arms and sometimes entire lives can be sucked into
the machines. While deep gashes and serious injuries are common, fires and
explosions are a rigger?s greatest fears.
The biggest danger of them all, a blowout, can be caused by something as
simple as a spark from a dropped tool, but whatever ignites the highly flammable
oil, the result can be a catastrophic explosion. In 2001 off the coast of
Brazil, three explosions killed ten workers on the largest offshore oil rig in
the world. If the seas, machinery and the explosions don?t get you, the
terrorists might. In June of 2006, eight oil rig workers?one of them an
American?were abducted from a rig off the coast of Nigeria. They lived through
the ordeal, but that?s not always the case.
Danger Factor: A lot of pressure, a lot of flammable substances, a lot
of risk. Yeah, this is dangerous.
Pay Scale: Commensurate with risk?good.
Perks: If you like water, plenty to look at.
Profile: Riggers are a tough breed.
14. Urban Cop
Okay, enough with the jokes about the donuts and coffee. Being a cop,
particularly an undercover, narcotics or vice cop in a U.S. urban city, is
really dangerous. You?re dealing with gangs, criminals and drug dealers
who will risk everything to protect their turf and their freedom. And they won?t
necessarily mind taking your life to preserve their own.
Interestingly, more cops died from traffic accidents and other incidents (81)
in 2005 than were murdered on the job. Their 50 violent fatalities,
however, are surprisingly few given what you would expect in America,
where metropolitan cities are infested with violence. However, danger is
omnipresent when your beat is the ?hood. If you happen to be in the narcotics
division, where your job is to “buy and bust”?that is, go into a setup
without a shield, gun or bulletproof vest?the risk is extremely high.
Ditto for bomb squads. Adding to the danger are one-of-a-kind emergencies that
can take lives. For example, in 2001, 23 police officers perished in one
fell swoop as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City.
Being a policeman didn?t even make the 2005 BLS list showing the top 10
most fatal jobs. But that statistic doesn?t alter what everyone already knows:
Being a cop is dangerous. And its not just death and injury that hangs over a
law enforcement officer, the tremendous strain of the job contributes to a
high rate of alcoholism, drug use, stress-related problems and abnormally high
Danger Factor: High.
Pay Scale: You?re a working man and you earn every penny of what you get.
Perks: Lots of time for donuts and coffee (okay, we couldn?t help it).
Good benefits and life insurance?hopefully you won?t need it.
Profile: You have to be a dedicated public servant and either love danger
or not be too afraid of it.
13. Professional Fighter
Your job is to hurt your opponent so badly he can?t get up again. The problem:
his job is to do the same to you. Often, to some degree, both sides are
effective. And sometimes the hurt is so bad that the fighter dies. Ladies
and gentlemen, welcome to the world of professional fighters. Badly bruised
faces, bodies and egos are a frequent occurrence, while broken ribs and
jaws make their share of appearances as well. These are the instant forms of
injury. A more pernicious one, which can occur over a longer period of
time (and could come as a result of one powerful blow) is dementia pugilista, or
as it?s known in the industry, punch-drunk disease. A fighter gets hit so
many times in the head over a career that his brain turns to jelly, causing
involuntary shaking, slurred speech, memory loss, paranoia, and a general
decrease in awareness. A 1993 study by the American Journal of Sports Medicine
concluded that punch-drunk disease affects anywhere from 9 to 25 percent of all
professional boxers, a pretty damning conclusion. Getting hit in the head
is not healthy. A causal relationship between repeated blows to the head and
degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer?s and Parkinson?s is generally
accepted as fact by doctors. Muhammad Ali, a legendary heavyweight champion, was
famous for his speed and agility. However, one of his less heralded qualities
was that he could take a punch. It may have worked to his disadvantage.
Three brutal wars with Joe Frazier and another punishing day with Larry Holmes
accumulated damage. Today, Ali moves as if he was underwater. Other great
fighters, like Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis, literally had the sense
beat out of them.
A study originally undertaken by Manuel Vasquez and updated by Joseph Svinth
charted 640 boxing deaths in the United States from January 1920 to April 2006.
Even champions can go down hard. On September 17, 2005, Leavander Johnson,
defending his IBF lightweight championship, dropped in the eleventh round and
died five days later. But that?s just fatalities. Other studies found that one
of the fighters in nearly 25 percent of boxing matches (actually, one in
eight fighters) got injured. This category is not just reserved for boxers; the
more brutal, less-holds barred forms of professional street fighting, like the
Ultimate Fighting Championship, are even more savage and its participants even
more prone to injury.
Danger Factor: Very high. When you?re getting your brains beat in by a
professional trained to hurt, something bad is bound to happen.
Pay Scale: Top level fighters make a fortune; the rest eke out a living.
Perks: The ultimate thrill of sports.
Profile: The toughest guys in the roughest sport.
12. NFL Pro Football Player
Football makes our list of the most dangerous jobs not because of on-the-job
fatality rates?it?s rare to hear of a pro football player dying?but because of
the extremely high injury rate. When you have some of the biggest, strongest and
fastest men on the planet hammering you with the full force of their
prodigious bulk, the spindly legs underneath the massive upper frame take
terrible punishment, especially if that?s the part of the body receiving
the brunt of the impact.
Did you ever see a retired NFL player play tennis, jog or do other athletic
activities? That won?t occur too often, because by the time their careers have
ended, their knees, ankles, hips and various other skeletal structures have gone
through so many reparative surgeries, that there is little, if any, of the
original cartilage left. In other words, they?re near-cripples who barely hobble
along, a far cry from the grace and power they displayed in their heyday.
By the time these players are 50, they can barely even walk.
And there are other debilitating hurts?concussions (sometimes multiple ones)
and spinal-cord injuries that leave players permanently disabled. There are also
dislocated shoulders, broken ribs, and the pernicious effects of
performance-enhancing drugs. Brooklyn-born Lyle Alzado was one such example: He
developed brain cancer as a result of steroid use, dying not long after
his diagnosis. But deaths on the field are rare. One exception was Minnesota
Viking Korey Stringer, who on the second day of pre-season practice in July
2001, died from heatstroke. He was the only player to suffer this fate in the
history of the NFL. And death from violent impact during an NFL game? Never
But injuries? Big time. A 1994 Ball State University survey showed that 65
percent of NFL players who retired before the 1990s suffered an injury serious
enough to require surgery, or to take them out of action for extended periods of
time. Those are just the body blows; NFL players take a lot of shots to the head
as well. A 2000 abstract presented to the American Academy of Neurology showed
that 60 percent of former NFL players got concussions, with 26 percent of all
players suffering more than one. These brain-jarring injuries will most likely
lead to headaches and memory problems for the rest of their lives. When you have
a job where it?s estimated that half your fellow workers retire because of
injury, that says a lot. Is playing the NFL a killer job? We?d say so.
Danger Factor: The high injury rate puts a pro football player ahead
of more lethal jobs, but lacking the fatality risk, not quite in the top ten. On
balance, it?s on the list; it?s dangerous.
Pay Scale: Stars can make $10 million a year and up; lesser players still
Perks: Insane amounts of money, adulation, fame and all the sexy
trappings of being a star. Also, it?s a sport?players live for the competition.
Profile: Big, strong, quick and talented athletes competing at the
You?re operating heavy electric saws, often working many stories above ground
and massive trees are collapsing around you? sometimes, on top of you. In 2002,
the BLS reported 104 deaths from logging, making it the highest on-the-job
mortality rate per 100,000 workers (117.8 per 100,000) on their list. That?s a
staggering number of fatalities for the industry, making these workers 30
times more likely to die on the job than the average American worker for that
year. In 2005 that rate was 92.9 per 100,000, dropping to second place below
fishing-related jobs, but not disguising the fact that this remains very
Most of the fatalities were due to death by falling trees, but when you?re
operating heavy mechanized saws, all sorts of other bad things can occur.
When you hear the call of timber! you better hope the tree is falling where it?s
supposed to, and not on you. Whether # 1 or #2 on the yearly BLS fatality stats,
the fact remains: lumberjacking is extremely dangerous.
Danger Factor: Extremely high. Traditionally ranks #1 or #2 on the
list of most lethal jobs compiled by the BLS.
Pay Scale: Good.
Perks: Lots of fresh air.
Profile: Lumberjacks are a hardy breed.
10. Urban Firefighter
What do you say about guys who do the opposite of what everybody else does in
times of danger? While we?re fleeing for our lives from an out-of-control blaze
or similar emergency, firemen run into the hell storm. Is this crazy or
brave? Maybe both. Whatever the case, a firemen?s job is insanely risky. Every
day they put their lives on the line. And any day can be their last.
Firefighters risk loss of life, smoke inhalation, terrible burns, crippling
injuries when buildings collapse on them, poisoning and lung damage from
inhalation of toxic materials, and extreme mental duress from the pressures of
Entering burning buildings and rescuing trapped people is just part of the
job. They also respond to a host of other types of calls, some of which are
easy?like rescuing cats from tree branches? and some are not. In the most
deadly disaster to ever hit a fire department, 343 firemen, including entire
departments, lost their lives responding to the 2001 World Trade Center
crisis. Firemen may sit around watching TV and pumping iron during slow
periods, but never take it away from these boys. When the alarm sounds, they put
it all on the line for the rest of us. You play with fire, you?re going to
Danger Factor: Any day can be a day you never forget?or never remember
Pay Scale: A working man?s wage.
Perks: There?s lots of downtime between calls.
Profile: Brave, crazy, or both.
9. Coal Miner
Some wake up and spit out black liquid. Coughing, breathlessness, extreme
fatigue to the point that it?s an effort to even cross a room, are all side
effects. In 1831, a name was put to these symptoms: black lung disease. That?s
what coal miners have had to endure trying to support their families. The
Appalachian coal miners, it was said, were digging their own grave. And it was
not far from the truth. Black lung disease is caused by the prolonged
inhalation of coal dust, an occupational hazard of coal miners. In 1969, the
U.S. Congress finally weighed in on the health risks of coal miners and
ordered measures to increase safety, steps that were subsequently made
more lax in 1973. In 1994, a new U.S. Department of Labor rule for protecting
miners from excessive dust was put into place. But still, the specter of
black lung disease hangs over every coal miner who breathes in this lethal dust
almost every second of his working day.
There is no cure for this disease, and though not every miner gets black
lung, enough did in coal?s dark days that even today, thousands die every year
from accumulated damage. That is the slow and painful death. There is the
quicker way, too. Collapsed shafts bury miners alive. The worst mining disaster
in American history took place on December 6, 1907 in Monogah, West
Virginia. An explosion caused by the ignition of methane gas, which in turn
ignited the mine?s coal dust, shattered two mine shafts. A total of 362 men lost
their lives. More recently, on January 2, 2006 a pocket of gas exploded in a
coal minein Sago, West Virginia, trapping a group of thirteen miners for almost
two days. Only one of them, miraculously, survived.
But that?s not all a coal miner has to deal with. There is also exposure to
poisonous and explosive gases, cave-ins, floods, malfunctioning mine
equipment and heavy falling objects, all of which can maim or kill. From
1991-1999, an average of 21,351 coal miners per year were injured in accidents.
An average of 93 people per year died during the same interval. It got worse
after the millennium. The BLS reported 159 deaths in the mining sector for
2005, up from 141 in 2003 and 152 in 2004. Coal mining is one of the
toughest?and most dangerous?jobs in America.
Danger Factor: High.
Pay Scale: For the work, not enough pay.
Perks: It?s a job. Often, there?s no other decent choice.
Profile: Workers are tough. They have to be?it?s one of the hardest ways
to make a living.
8. Urban Street Prostitute
Your pimp is vicious and keeps you in line with regular beatings. Your johns can
end up being serial killers, making you one more “quiet” stat in a police
blotter. Your customers can infect you with every sexually transmitted
disease available, not the least of which is AIDS. Drinking, drugs and the
trappings of poverty often go hand in hand with the profession, leaving
prostitutes multiple ways to find unhappy endings. And whatever money you make,
you may end up giving it to your pimp or your drug habit?a temporary salve to a
hard life on the streets.
Sound appealing? I didn?t think so. But this is the life of an urban street
prostitute. It is impossible to quantify the fatality and injury rate of this
profession, but given short-term dangers, long-term risks andthe daily punishing
stress of plying your trade in the street, you have to give the gals and
guys that work these hard streets credit for a tough but sad gig.
Danger Factor: High; even greater for crack whores.
Pay Scale: A lot of danger and hard work for not too much money.
Perks: Lots of sex, but not the right kind.
Profile: People from a school of hard knocks and bad breaks.
7. Bull Rider
“It?s not if you get injured, but when,” one cowboy told us. Bull riding,
rodeo?s most dangerous event and America?s first extreme sport, is the ultimate
test of courage for cowboys. Commentators like to call bull riding the
most dangerous eight seconds in sports. That?s the minimum time a professional
bull rider, using only one hand to grip his rope, must cling to a bull to have
completed what?s considered a successful ride?assuming the angry animal
doesn?t first dislodge the rider with a vicious jolt.
The violent shaking pounding while on top of a bull and the crash landing
that greets the dislodged passenger wreaks havoc on a human body that was not
built for this kind of abuse. And should the fallen rider be unlucky
enough to find the roles reversed, with the bull on top and the cowboy
underneath, the damage is immediate and catastrophic. This was the fate of
world champion bull rider Lane Frost. After finishing a successful ride, his
bull, Taking Care of Business, battered him in the side, shattering his ribs and
tearing open an artery. Frost died on the ground.
Cowboys risk riding bulls like Bodacious, who was retired in his prime
because of his proficiency for breaking men. In 1994, it was dealing Terry Don
West a life-threatening injury; in 1995 it was Scott Breding, and then
The only armor cowboys wear is a protective vest that lessens the force of
impact. They also wear a cowboy hat, but that can?t be trusted to ward off even
a heavy rain. The bull rider?s only real defense is the rodeo clown, who
is the most important person alive to him. The rodeo clown?s job is to distract
the bull; that is, induce the bull to charge him instead, at least until
the cowboy can scamper to safety. The clowns even manage to keep their smiles as
the bulls attempt to gore them. But maybe that?s because their grins are
painted on. Deaths don?t come often at the rodeo, only one or two riders die per
year; but that is a lot given the relatively small number of participants.
Ultimately this tough job makes the list for the severe pounding men take riding
1,500-pound angry behemoths and for their injuries from being tossed and
trampled. Along with bull riders, rodeo clowns get a big nod in this killer job
Danger Factor: Very high. Death, serious injury, chronic injury?bull
riding has it all.
Pay: The Professional Bull Riders association, created in 1992, awards
more than $95 million in prize money. Top riders have earned over $3 million
dollars, not including endorsements.
Perks: Tremendous thrill; it?s what cowboys do. As one cowboy said, “I
live for those eight seconds.”
Profile: Y?all gotta be some tough chili-eatin? cowboys to ride bulls.
6. Alaskan Crab Fisherman
In 2005, the BLS ranked fishing as the most fatality-ridden job, with 118.4
fatalities per 100,000, almost 30 times the rate of the average worker. But
those statistics are for fishing in general, not for Alaskan crab fishing, which
is infinitely more dangerous?about 400 fatalities per 100,000. The danger
is threefold: the Alaskan fishermen work in hellacious weather that can toss
them overboard to their death; the fishing boats take on so much weight from the
750 pound fishing traps that they become unstable and prone to capsizing;
and the injuries they sustain from working with heavy machinery and gear can be
crippling. Crab fishermen ply their trade in some of the worst and most
treacherous conditions on earth: subzero temperatures, frigid gale-force winds,
tumultuous seas with 40-foot swells, and ice that can build up so thick it
sometimes capsizes the boat. To maximize the yield for a season that lasts only
three or four weeks (sometimes two months), crabbers squeeze every possible
human hour into their workday, working as much as 22-hour days in extreme
conditions?they fear that while they?re sleeping, someone else is pulling in
that catch. This mad dash through the season magnifies the risks even
more; many crabbers take to using cocaine to stay awake for this marathon.
It?s not uncommon for one of the half-ton or heavier crab traps, called “pots,”
and maneuvered by hydraulic cranes, to smash into a fisherman. That?s what
happened to Vernon Rosendahl in the 2003 season when he was knocked
overboard. One of his crewmates donned a thick, insulatedsurvival suit and
jumped in to save him. Both men disappeared for a time, so a third crewmember
hopped overboard. Everyone was back on deck a few minutes later, but Rosendahl?s
20 minutes of exposure in the frighteningly cold water was too long to recover
from. He died on board. In the 1995 season, the Northwest Mariner sank hours
after leaving dock in vicious storms. Only two of the six bodies were
recovered?they were found dead of hypothermia, floating in a lifeboat.
Almost everyone who crabs gets injured at some point during the season, and
there?s always a chance that a giant wave or a gust of icy air will knock them
into the water where there?s little chance of rescue. Dangerous work?
Danger Factor: Very high. When you go for a swim, they rarely find
Pay Scale: Crabbers can make $15,000 to as much as $80,000.
Perks: What?s not to like? Spend one or two months working, ten or eleven
months vacationing. This is a great ratio in anyone?s book.
Profile: You have to be fearless and motivated.
5. Soldier In Battle
If you?re in the live theater of combat, death is all around. Your ticket can
get punched from all sorts of projectiles?bullets, bombs, missiles?or you can
get maimed. Landmines, booby traps, snipers are only some of the ways you
can meet disaster and none of them are pretty. Usually, you never see it coming.
It can come from friendly fire or those who may or may not be friendlies. In
Iraq, as was often the case in Vietnam, the front line is not necessarily
on a traditional battlefield, but often on the street, where you don?t know who
your enemy is?until it?s too late. Your government may decide to use chemical
warfare (such as napalm and Agent Orange) in complete disregard of your
own well-being. Face it, you?re a pawn and you?re expendable for the greater
The duress of killing and watching people get killed can get to you. If the
conditions are continually savage, or you?re fighting in places where you don?t
even understand why the enemy is the enemy, other things can break you
down. You can be your own worst enemy. In Vietnam, one soldier we interviewed
told us that of the nine men in his patrol who died, five of them were
Of course, how dangerous the soldiering is depends on how close you are
to the action and its intensity. For example, if you?re a cook in an army
training center, the risk of getting burnt from inadvisably picking up a hot
potato doesn?t compare with a medic who marches into fire as a
noncombatant, to save the lives of the fallen. Elite units like Delta Force, the
Navy Seals, and private mercenary units all get nods for extra risk. U.N.
peacekeepers, operating under Byzantine rules, suffer the fate of being
unable to defend themselves, despite being shot at. Ditto the medics?they?re not
looking to kill, just to save lives. But to the other side, they?re still
Danger Factor: Extremely high. Danger lurks everywhere, even from
Pay Scale: Minimal.
Perks: Foreign travel? I guess. Learning to be a man? I guess.
Profile: Allures may be patriotism, a solid job with benefits, idealism
or escape from home, a bad life or the ghetto.
Not to be confused with a movie stuntman, the daredevil, almost by definition,
crosses the boundary from stunt to high risk. Daredevils include risk-taking
pioneers doing death-defying feats, from tightrope walkers parading over
unimaginable heights, to early aviation pioneers, to fearless men jumping
over waterfalls. For example, there was Sam Patch, who in 1829 was the first to
jump from the top of Niagara Falls into the river below?and live. A few
days later, he did it a second time and survived to tell about it, for a little
while at least. A short time later he died jumping the 100-foot high Upper Falls
in Rochester; he dislocated both shoulders upon impact and drowned in the
river below. Many daredevils perform acts that seem more dangerous than they
are? or on second thought, maybe they are as dangerous. Take Evel Knievel.
He became a huge draw in the 70s thanks to stunts that were every bit as crazy
as they looked. He attempted seemingly impossible stunts on a motorcycle, like
flying over the fountain at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas or over Idaho?s
Snake River Canyon. In the process, he broke dozens of bones, acquired
concussions, went into comas and became a star. The real miracle was that
he survived at all. Evel?s son, Robbie Knievel, using more advanced bikes and
better planning, kept his father?s daredevil tradition alive, setting 20 world
records in the process.
For ultimate thrill seekers, pushing the envelope on danger is a rush of pure
adrenaline they can?t seem to get enough of. The danger factor depends on the
feat attempted, but we can probably all agree that daredevils flirt with
serious injury and death every time they attempt a high risk stunt.
Danger Factor: From dangerous to more dangerous.
Pay Scale: Unless you?re a great self-promoter, may not be all that much.
Perks: The thrill of danger and death.
Profile: You have to be crazy.
3. Narcotics Dealer
The world of a drug dealer is filled with violence, desperate people, and so
many minefields that few dealers make it out of their profession in one piece,
let alone alive. The customers who buy their products are addicts of the
worst order, prone to do anything to anyone to get their fix?one more potential
danger to the hand, so to speak, that feeds them. Dealers amass power, money and
influence as their business grows.
Each step toward success in their business exposes them to further hazards:
competition from newer players, bigger players, overly ambitious partners or
lower tier associates who think a different configuration at the top is
needed. Other hazards include the violence in the drug milieu, the law and
ultimately themselves. If the dealer becomes his own customer, the accompanying
megalomania, grandeur and delusional paranoia will soon level his playing field.
There are no stats to rely on, but anecdotally, the score is easy to tally. A
rare few make it through their career unscathed. It?s like ordering Chinese
takeout. You want A, B or C? You either get maimed, killed or you go to
Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar lived the high life?power, women,
unbelievable riches, fame?but died ignominiously (as most drug kingpins do),
gunned down like a hunted animal. The unforgettable Tony Montana, portrayed by
Al Pacino in the movie Scarface, had it all until he became his own best
customer. He died in a hail of bullets, his face powdered by coke. If you?re the
guy low on the food chain, you?re prone to getting the finger pointed at
you if things go bad?or the gun pointed at you if you run your mouth the wrong
way or get into the wrong situation. If you?re the man up high, you?re a
target for everyone?law enforcement, competitors, disgruntled customers, the
laws of the street, and your own products. Play Russian roulette too often,
you?re going to catch the wrong cylinder.
Danger Factor: Extremely high. You have to watch your back. Everyone
is your potential enemy.
Pay Scale: At low levels, good, quick money. Tax free! At high levels,
rich beyond your wildest dreams.
Perks: When it?s good, it doesn?t get any better: money, power, women,
Profile: Guys who like playing a dangerous game.
2. Himalayan Mountain Climber
The ultimate quest in Himalayan mountaineering is to climb all fourteen
8,000-square-meter peaks. Only six people have achieved this. The rest have
either died trying or are still working on a task that?s near suicidal.
Mount Everest is the most notorious of the Himalayan climbs. It is the burial
place to many would-be summiteers that didn?t have the good sense?or good
luck?to get back down the mountain alive. But the most fearsome peak of
them all is Annapurna. The harsh statistical reality is this: One in two people
who attempt this climb die. We call that dangerous. Plummeting off cliffs,
through crevasses, being buried by avalanches, freezing to death, pulmonary and
cerebral edema, disorientation at the highest altitudes and then freezing
to death?there are lots of ways to go on an 8,000-er. If you do make it off the
mountain alive, you may not have use of all the limbs you started with: Severe
frostbite, gangrene, and other fearsome ailments can take their toll. Himalayan
mountain climbers are thrill seekers, obsessed men who love nature and the
outdoors and have an innate need to measure themselves against the most
forbidding terrain in the world. They make their living not on the climbs
themselves but on the auxiliary benefits of their feats: through
endorsements from outdoor outfitters and clothing suppliers, magazine and book
writing and as guides to adventurous amateurs. When the greatest climbers
in this profession regularly meet death on the mountain, that?s dangerous. You
like your life? Choose another profession.
Danger Factor: Insanely high.
Pay Scale: Difficult to get sponsors, it can cost you money?or your
life?to get your rep going.
Perks: Getting to the top of the world and achieving what few others have
done is one of the best feelings imaginable.
Profile: Adventurers of the highest order; requires top-notch training
and fitness, toughness, savvy and experience.
1. Suicide Assailant
This is the most dangerous of all occupations and one that probably attracts the
fewest applicants. The fundamental requirement, by definition alone, is to
sacrifice your life while completing your task. Survival rate is
practically nil. You have to be either a real idiot to fail, or suddenly wake up
and realize that maybe this job is not the best idea. Whether you?re talking
Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II, Al-Qaeda car-bomber or other
type of violent self-sacrificial act, the fatality rate is almost perfect.
Danger Factor: Nothing more dangerous than a job where you only
succeed by dying.
Pay Scale: Whatever it is, you won?t get to enjoy it.
Perks: Free burial.
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