The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore. -Vincent Van Gogh
There are some professions that top the list of dangerous jobs year after year: commercial fishing, loggers, roofers and trash collectors. The average fatality rate for all jobs in the U.S. is roughly 3.5 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalents (FTEs). The fatality rates for these jobs are 10 to 30 times higher.
It can be difficult for those of us working nine to five in the safety of an office to understand why someone would ever choose the risk associated with these professions.
What Establishes a Job as Dangerous?
Each year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries using fatal injury rates. The BLS tells us that fatal injury rates “depict the risk of incurring a fatal occupational injury faced by all workers or a subgroup of workers and are used to compare risk over time or with other worker groups.” The census displays the fatal injury data in several different charts, each with the data organized and categorized in different methods. One such chart displays the fatal injury rate by industry, offering insight into the most dangerous professions. The fatality rates for the dangerous jobs range from 35 to 100 fatalities per 100,000 FTEs.
As far back as I can remember, my dad has never worked in what would be considered a “safe” occupation. Among other things, he’s worked in manufacturing plants, driven trucks, been a correctional officer and is presently a trash truck driver. If I were to ask him why, I’m sure his answer would be simple; he enjoys working with his hands. He’s never been one well suited for office work – it’s too dull. There are driving factors behind every decision we make and action we take. While we won’t ever know for sure what drives the individuals that work in these professions, there are some common themes that influence their decisions.
“The love of money is the root of all evil.” As I’ve grown, I’ve learned there is just as much truth in the saying “money makes the world go ‘round.” We all need to eat, provide for our families, and have a roof over our heads. If you were presented with an opportunity to make more money and provide a more comfortable life or even a college fund for your children, wouldn’t you take it? Depending on circumstances, you probably would.
Many of the professions that top the list of most dangerous are also well-compensated. According to the Alaska Fishing Employment Center, salmon fishermen can earn up to $20,000 in three months, while crab fishermen can make up to $15,000 per month. Loggers earn between $40,000 and $50,000 per year and roofers and trash collectors earn an average of $40,000 per year. None of these jobs require a college degree or even technical training. While there are classes available, most employers do not require them to begin work. All things considered, the opportunity is good, if you’re willing to accept the risk.
Skills take years of hard work, practice and dedication to master. Sometimes the skills we work to master are skills our parents teach us, with the expectation that we will carry on the family trade and pass it on to our own children someday.
While some come into the professions by chance or by choice, there are trades that are frequently passed down through generations, especially in locations where opportunities to practice these specialized crafts are abundant and opportunities to practice other trades much less. It’s not uncommon that children are raised and groomed with the expectation to follow in the footsteps of family members who came before them. When you’ve spent your entire life preparing for one role and, as a result, have developed a specialized skill set, it’s hard to turn your back on it.
Some abilities do come naturally. I grew up in a small town where very few were able to afford a college education without some sort of assistance, assuming they wanted to go. Instead, many of those who couldn’t afford to go to college or didn’t want to go, learned trades. They now work as roofers, construction workers, carpet layers, or in other trades. Many of them make a better living than those of us who pursued a college education because of a natural ability to do the work.
When we have a specialized skill, whether learned at our parent’s knee or through an institution, we are predisposed to choose professions that let us use that skill.
When we began discussing careers as middle and high school students, it was exciting. We were encouraged to find careers that followed our dreams. Over a decade after graduating from high school, I realize, however, that it would have been more helpful to hear less about following my dreams and more about cultivating a dream that follows my career. It would have been very helpful to be told that marine biology wasn’t a very realistic goal for someone who wanted to live in the Midwest, or that professional basketball had incredibly limited prospects.
Geographical location and our willingness to relocate can often be the biggest deciding factor in our career choice. My family is in the Midwest. In fact, my entire family lives within a seventy-five-mile radius of my home. This makes me hesitant to relocate. For those with family members who need their assistance, it’s often not even an option. There are other reasons to be bound to a particular geography as well.
People with that geographical constraint, for whatever reason, are left to choose from the jobs that are available. The options may be limited. Safe jobs may exist in an area, but the dangerous jobs still need to be done and they are often the hardest jobs to fill. When you find yourself in need of a paycheck, sometimes you just have to take what you can get, no matter the cost to personal safety.
More Than a Job
While income, skills and necessity offer some justification for working a dangerous job, that’s not all there is to it. Some people just enjoy the work. It’s more than a job for them, it’s a passion. They have a sense of purpose and take pride in the work they do. They’re there to do what others won’t. They enjoy their jobs as well as the environments in which they work – and we need these people.
Just Because They are Dangerous Doesn’t Mean They Can’t be Safer
If I had a choice, my dad wouldn’t be driving a trash truck. He’s been in danger more than once – he’s been so severely injured on the route that he’s spent time in a hospital. But it’s not my choice, so he doesn’t work behind a desk at a job he hates.
The world needs fisherman, loggers, roofers and trash collectors as well as bankers, teachers, and engineers. Sometimes we choose our profession and sometimes it chooses us.
Dangerous jobs aren’t going away, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the danger. Sometimes it’s easy for us in relatively safe jobs to shrug off the danger of more hazardous jobs. “Well, what did they expect?” Well, they didn’t expect to die on the job. No one should have to expect that. So, let’s think of everyone who works at a dangerous job, not with disdain, but with respect. And let’s encourage anyone in a position to make those jobs less dangerous to do it. These workers deserve nothing less.