Featuring a horrific rate of 408 deaths per 1,000 workers, from a construction fatality standpoint the Panama Canal is in a class by itself.
Nearly 31,000 souls lost their lives toiling on the project, but compared to others like the Suez Canal that had a far larger workforce, in terms of absolute deaths its numbers are relatively small.
Not surprisingly, in past centuries safety often took a backseat to expediency and profits, but as early as the 1800s some forward thinking engineers and construction companies began taking the lives of their workers seriously.
When the Eiffel Tower was built In the 1880s and 1890s, official records show that no construction related deaths occured, a statistic largely attributed to the pioneering use of safety nets and guard rails.
Likewise, when the 984 foot (300 m) art deco Chrysler Building was erected in New York in the ‘20s and ‘30s, of 3,000 workers none died.
But though significant advancements have been made over the years, construction is still a deadly trade.
Even now workers die from falling debris, collapsing cranes, asphyxiation and faulty or nonexistent safety equipment, but at least in the developed world, gone are the days of casualties caused by malaria, malnourishment, hostel natives and predatory beasts like leopards, lions and tigers.
Now let’s dive into some of the world’s deadliest construction projects.
The Suez Canal
The Suez Canal is a manmade channel stretching across Egypt’s Suez Isthmus between Africa and Asia.
Extending from Port Tewfik in the south to Port Said in the north, the canal is more than 120 miles (193 km) long from end to end, and on average carries more than 90 vessels per day, or about 32,000 per year.
It provides commercial and military ships a direct route between the Indian Ocean and Red Sea, and the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, thereby reducing trip length between Middle Eastern, African, Asian and European ports by as much as 5,500 miles (8,900 km).
Employing nearly 1.5 million workers from around the world, the colossal project claimed the lives of more than 120,000 souls, making it one of the deadliest construction projects in history.
In the mid-1850s after years of lobbying Egyptian and Sudanese officials and royalty, French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps was granted a concession to build a massive canal that would be open to vessels of all nations.
Before construction began however, an international commission of experts was established to determine the project’s feasibility, cost, and route.
When ground was broken in September of 1859, much of the digging was done by pick and shovel-wielding laborers, most of whom were there against their wills.
Progress was painfully slow early on, thanks to nearly impenetrable bedrock, outbreaks of malaria, labor disputes, lack of satisfactory food and water, harsh weather and abominable living conditions.
But when Egypt’s Khedive Isma’il Pasha banned the use of forced labor in 1863, it forced the Suez Canal Company to make the shift to mechanized construction, which eventually included hundreds of steam and coal-powered earth movers like shovels and dredges.
In fact, it was just the shot that the project needed.
Progress that’d been anemic increased rapidly, and all told the lion’s share of the 75 million cubic meters of earth, rock and sand moved was done by machinery.
When it opened in October of 1869, the single-lane canal was just 25 feet (7.6 m) deep, and tapered from only 72 feet (22 m) wide at the bottom to between 200 and 300 feet (61-91 m) wide on the surface.
There were no locks like there are today, and since the seawater flowed freely the level changed with prevailing tides, which meant crossings were often hairy for heavily laden ships.
The canal’s final cost came in at nearly 100 million USD, or nearly twice what was estimated.
When adjusted for inflation, that puts the price tag in today’sdollars somewhere between 7 and 10 billion, perhaps more.
Built by the Japanese during the Second World War, by some estimates, construction of the Burma-Siam railway between Bangkok, Thailand and Mawlamyine, Myanmar (formerly Burma) claimed the lives of more than 30,000 civilians and POWs.
In the opening months of the War in the Pacific, Japanese forces struck Allied bases in the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, the Philippines and Hong Kong, and by the spring of ‘42 they’d captured nearly 130,000 civilians and 150,000 soldiers, including 30,000 Brits, 18,000 Dutchmen, 13,000 Australians and about 700 Americans.
Shortly thereafter when the Imperial Japanese Navy was defeated in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the embattled country’s supply routes became hopelessly insecure, and new ways of getting goods to forces in Southeast Asia were desperately needed.
Despite abundant drawbacks, an overland route through some of the region’s densest jungles and most mountainous terrain was the best alternative, and to that end scores of prisoners were crammed into vessels known as “Hell Ships” bound for Thailand and Burma – a perilous journey during which nearly 20% of those onboard died.
Between June 1942 and October 1943, POWs and forced laborers including children laid nearly 260 miles (417 km) of track along the River Kwai.
The narrow-gauge track required numerous bridges and significant portions of mountain to be carved away, and most of the work was done by hand, one painstaking swing of the pick at a time.
The route wound its way through abundant canyons and gorges, the most treacherous of which became known as “Hellfire Pass” that included cuts as long as 1,500 feet (450 m) that bore more than 200 (61 m) into rock.
In addition to abysmal conditions in camp, workers endured heavy rains, blistering heat, thick banks of disease-carrying mosquitoes, 18 hour days and constant beatings, and daily rations included little more than token portions of rice and spoiled meat or fish often contaminated with maggots and rat excrement.
Consequently, exposure, malnourishment, dehydration, cholera, malaria and diarrhea were common and frequently led to death.
Some historians believe that more than 12,000 Allied POWs died during construction, and possibly three or four times as many civilians.
Most were left where they fell or buried in mass graves deep in the jungle in areas that are still relatively inaccessible.
Now the remains of nearly 7,000 Allied soldiers are interred on the grounds of the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.
The adjacent museum draws nearly 100,000 visitors annually, many of whom were forced to work on the deadly project more than seven decades ago.
White Sea – Baltic Sea Canal
A semi-manmade waterway between Lake Onega and the White Sea had been on the drawing board long before construction officially began in 1931.
The proposed White Sea – Baltic Sea Canal would reduce transit times and shipping costs between Russia, Finland and the Baltic countries, but all previous attempts at building it were abandoned due to a lack of funding and insufficient economic necessity, namely that existing railroads were able to handle much of the cargo moving into and out of the area.
But plans for a canal retook center stage in the early ‘30s, when by decree of the Council of Labor and Defense of the USSR and Joseph Stalin himself, construction was ordered to begin once again.
Just a few years earlier in late 1927, Stalin had launched the “Revolution from Above” that set two distinct goals for the country – agricultural collectivization and a massive push toward industrialization, the latter of which included scores of transportation projects.
Stretching 141 miles (227 km) from end to end, only about ⅓ of the canal would be man made, while the rest would follow the course of existing rivers and lakes, of which Lake Vygozero is the largest.
Work on the canal was carried out almost exclusively by forced laborers from gulags, many of whom had been convicted of “political crimes,” while others were guilty of little more than owing money to creditors, petty theft and public drunkenness.
According to official records the workforce totalled about 125,000, of which between 12,000 and 25,000 died from exposure, starvation, malnutrition and physical exhaustion.
Other unofficial sources like dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, suggest that the real numbers may have been up to ten times higher, and that massive graves later found in the forests around Sandermokh offer proof of mass executions, probably of prisoners no longer fit for hard labor.
Despite the unthinkable conditions, the canal and its 19 locks were built in less than two years and opened ahead of schedule on August 2, 1933.
Not surprisingly however, the workmanship was poor even by Soviet standards, and due to money and time constraints, at just 11.5 feet (3.5 m) deep in some areas the the canal was much shallower than the planned depth of 17.7 feet (5.4 m), making it impassable for nearly all oceangoing vessels including subs and navy ships traveling between the Barents, White and Baltic Seas, for which some historians theorize it was built in the first place.
The canal was damaged extensively during World War II, and though a number of upgrades have been made over the years it still sees only light traffic, mostly from relatively small river freighters.
At more than 1,900 miles (3,060 km), America’s Transcontinental Railroad was built with unprecedented speed between 1863 and 1869.
And with an official fatality rate of 80 deaths per 1,000 workers, it wasn’t a particularly safe place to be employed.
In fact the railroad was built almost entirely without the heavy construction equipment we take for granted today.
Instead, millions of tons of rock were moved by workers with picks, shovels, augers, and copious amounts of blackpowder and dynamite.
Though the total number of workers employed on the project isn’t known, it’s generally agreed that about 15,000 Chinese and as many as 2,000 Irish immigrants provided most of the labor, and about 1,200 of them died as a result.
Three decades before construction began the steam locomotive made its debut along the country’s heavily populated east coast, and just a few decades later nearly 10,000 miles (16,100 km) of track had been laid.
That said, visions of westward expansion loomed large in the minds of many American farmers, prospectors, and opportunistic captains of industry looking to cash in on the impending migration.
But in the mid-19th century the overland journey from east to west was prohibitively laborious and risky, and many pioneers succumbed to disease, starvation, exposure, and attacks from hostile Native Americans across the Great Plains and Southwest.
The only other feasible routes were across the Isthmus of Panama and around South America’s Cape Horn, both of which were even more expensive, time consuming and deadly.
In short, an alternative was needed, and fast.
In 1845 New York entrepreneur Asa Whitney proposed the idea for a new national railroad to congress, but years of lobbying failed to secure the necessary approval until President Abraham Lincoln finally signed the Pacific Railroad Act into law in 1862.
Two private companies – the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads – would race toward one another from starting points in Sacramento, California and Omaha, Nebraska respectively, and if all went according to plan, they’d meet somewhere in the middle thereby opening up the west.
The companies were to be heavily rewarded for every mile of track built, which promoted speed and profits over more trivial matters like quality and safety.
All told, the primary causes of death during construction were rockslides, premature explosions, falls from high places and malnourishment, as well as outbreaks of diseases like smallpox.
Other more colorful yet less numerous deaths occurred at the settlements that popped up all along the railroad’s route, in which gambling, prostitution, drinking and playing with firearms were the main means of recreation.
Nonetheless, the two railroads met at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869 for the “Golden Spike Ceremony” marking the official end of construction.
In all, 690 miles (1,110 km) of track had been laid from Sacramento, and another 1,086 (1,747 km) from Omaha.
Total cost probably exceeded 100 million USD, or between 3 and $4 billion in today’s money.
Stretching nearly 800 miles (1,300 km) between Pakistan’s Punjab Province to the south and Xinjiang, China to the north, the Karakoram Highway – also known as KKH and the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway – passes through some of the region’s most rugged and remote landscapes.
Funded and built by the two partner countries, much of the highway follows the route of the original Silk Road that’s often just a few hours from other neighboring nations like Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Though the highway’s purported aim was economic development, it’s militarily significant as well, particularly with respect to moving supplies and troops to the perennially volatile Kashmir region between India and Pakistan.
Construction began in 1959 but was preceded by years of planning and negotiations, much of which concerned the highway’s proposed route which was often hotly contested due to far-ranging issues including cost, ease of construction, the preservation of natural areas and archaeological sites, and susceptibility to airstrikes should regional war break out during construction.
Winding its way through vast glacier fields and dozens of towering mountains like Pakistan’s 26,600-foot (8,126 m) Nanga Parbat, construction was slow, expensive, and prone to abundant dangers resulting from engineering miscalculations, mechanical mishaps and dynamite blasts, as well as natural forces like earthquakes, high winds and flash floods.
The project employed nearly 25,000 workers including unskilled laborers and heavy equipment operators, to engineers, hydrologists and geologists employed by private companies and the governments of both countries.
The impressive engineering feat resulted in one of the world’s highest paved roads that in some areas near the Khunjerab Pass is more than 15,000 feet (4,700 m) above sea level, hence, like many large projects around the globe it’s often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Estimates of construction-related deaths range from just over 500 to more than 2,000, while other sources claim both countries either intentionally underreported fatalities or just failed to prioritize accurate record keeping.
Whatever the case, it’s believed that Pakistani fatalities were 3 or 4 times greater than they were for the Chinese, most likely due to less advanced construction methods and safety precautions, and because at 501 miles (806 km) the portion of the highway in Pakistan is significantly longer than the Chinese section.
Since it opened in 1979, much of the highway has remained unpaved, and maintenance crews struggle to deal with gargantuan potholes and huge swaths of missing road caused by seasonal landslides, avalanches and floods.
Even now approximately 300 deaths occur on the highway annually, most of which are the result of trucks and busses plummeting off precipices or being buried by falling debris.
Though in absolute deaths its numbers are relatively low, at 55 fatalities per 1,000 workers unofficially, the KKH was another of the world’s deadliest construction projects.