How Dangerous Is Your Job? (Feb, 1936)

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How Dangerous Is Your Job?


HOW dangerous is your job? What are your chances of being killed, or temporarily or permanently disabled? More than they would be at other work—or less?

Those are broad questions, but I found an accident-insurance company ready to give amazingly definite answers. And the answers were full of surprises.

A prison warden faces less danger than a diamond cutter, I learned. An ambulance driver’s job is as safe as a garage mechanic’s. Driving a heavy truck is riskier than either; it’s as dangerous as moving buildings!

Whatever your job may be, the insurance company can estimate, in actual figures, how much more dangerous—or less dangerous—it is than any other given job.

Insurance experts have classified some 5,000 occupations, dividing them into ten separate groups according to hazards. Those ten degrees of danger can be illustrated by ten names, one picked at random from each of the ten classes: (1) bookkeeper, (2) food inspector, (3) camera-lens grinder, (4) ambulance driver, (5) tree pruner or nurseryman, (6) cabinetmaker using machinery, (7) structural-steel riveter, (8) coal miner, (9) freight brakeman, (10) steeple jack. Change from any of those jobs to a higher-numbered one, and you take a step toward injury or death!

The rates charged for accident insurance show how much the hazard increases. If a bookkeeper becomes a nurseryman he doubles his risk. A brake-man is in more than seven times as much danger as a bookkeeper; he can’t even get the same kind of insurance. Many companies won’t write a policy of any kind for a steeple jack; that indicates the peril of his job!

The steeple jack shares the hardly desirable distinction of having the “most dangerous job” with scores of workers in other widely assorted fields. Undersea divers, aviators, auto racers, caisson men working in compressed air, makers of high explosives, professional athletes, including baseball players—all of them face such great risks that they are usually described by the terse comment: “Not insurable.”

The estimates of danger are not just guesswork. Their accuracy is continually being sharpened by scientific calculations. It is not a mere matter of counting deaths and injuries; if it were, many jobs might be considered much safer. Unexpected influences enter into the figures.

In the infancy of accident-insurance companies, some sixty years ago, they used plain horse sense to classify occupations. Those that seemed to have the same sort of hazards—for instance, jobs that required the same tools—were grouped together.

Now, however, the companies have actual records of millions of accidents, and a gauge of their seriousness, in dollars and cents. Last year alone they paid out $90,-000,000 for injuries, deaths, and sickness. When there is a question about the dangers faced by persons employed in any kind of work, a large company takes from its files the records of all the policies covering that particular occupation, over a period of six months, or a year, or several years. The amounts paid out in settlement of claims are added up and compared with the total premiums collected. The comparison shows immediately whether the danger has been greater or less than it was estimated.

Some years ago, a dentist was regarded as one of the safest possible risks. He was in the first class, with bookkeepers, bank clerks, editors, librarians, telephone operators, and other inside workers, safer at their jobs than they would be on the street.

But scores of dentists injured their hands and fingers. They were bitten or bruised by patients’ teeth. They were cut or scratched by their own instruments. Many of those injuries caused temporary but complete disability, especially if infections developed. A dentist couldn’t put an infected, bandaged finger into a patient’s mouth.

A large group of insurance companies checked up their claims, and shifted dentists from the first class to the third. A dentist’s work makes him about fifty percent more liable to disability from injury than a bookkeeper, a banker, an editor, or any of the snugly safe inside workers. Exactly the same change was made in the rating of building contractors who stayed in the office and visited the actual job only occasionally. They used to be considered as safe as bankers. But they went to the job so often that their accident record was as bad as dentists’. Just a few months ago, during the alteration of a building in an eastern city, a contractor fell through a hole in a catwalk, and was killed. He had gone to the building only to inspect it.

It isn’t as strange as it may seem at first to call two occupations equally dangerous when one may cause a man to plunge to his death, while the principal hazard of the other is sore fingers. Accident-insurance companies can’t measure peril in terms of pain or grief; their gauge is marked in dollars and cents. Finger injuries, if they “cause loss of time from work, and if they occur often enough, can be more costly than occasional deaths.

Last year a foreman in a factory making a patent medicine went into an empty tank to examine it. He carried an electric light. An explosion occurred—probably due to the accidental breaking of the light bulb and igniting of alcohol vapor—and the man was killed. The job which led to that tragedy is listed in the fourth class.

And in the next class, more dangerous, is the repairing or operating of a sewing machine!

Prison wardens’ lives have been endangered often by mutinies and jail breaks. Yet the warden’s job, measured in terms of accidents, over a period of years, is as safe as a food inspector’s. A diamond cutter, or a jewelry maker, for whom a little slip may mean an injured hand and temporary disability, is in about a third more danger than the superintendent of a penitentiary. In every occupation, the chances of loss by accident depend not only upon the likelihood of the accident but also upon its consequences when it does occur. This is the explanation of at least a part of the hazard in many of the “most perilous” jobs. Not only is a baseball player more liable than a stock broker to sprain his arm but the injury is almost sure to prove more costly. A second baseman with his leg spiked may be in no more pain than a carpenter who has stepped on a nail but, other things being equal, the ball player’s disability will be greater or longer than the carpenter’s.

From a cold, mathematical viewpoint, one partially disabling accident is sometimes as bad as a fatality. A carpenter fell twenty feet from a scaffold and a hatchet, with which he had been working, severed four fingers. His policy named specific sums to be paid for the loss of hands, limbs or eyes, or for permanent total disability or death. But it did not mention fingers. The loss of four fingers totally disabled the carpenter for a long period and the insurance company paid him the full limit of his policy, which in this case was twice as much as would have been paid if he had been killed, and four times as much as if he had lost his entire hand!

A carpenter doing general work or framing on buildings, as that man did before his accident, faces about as much danger as a tree pruner, an etcher using acid, or a pneumatic-drill operator in a quarry when no explosives are used. All are in the fifth class.

But a carpenter doing bench work only, with no scaffolds to fall from, and no risk of tools or materials dropping from above, is as safe as a dentist or a lens grinder, in the third group.

If, however, the carpenter uses power-driven machinery, his hazard leaps about two thirds higher! He is in the sixth class, with roofers, building movers, cutlery grinders using unguarded wheels, hostlers, display-sign electricians, street-lamp testers, and noodle-machine operators.

HUNDREDS of strikingly different jobs share the same degree of danger when their accidents, from, minor hurts to deaths, are reduced to a dollars-and-cents basis. Fifteen days’ work were lost by an iceman who fell down a stairway and stabbed his arm with a pick. A truck driver strained his back while handling a heavy crate. A live-stock tender was trampled by steers. A threshing-machine feeder was caught in the machine and killed. From the insurance company’s viewpoint, these accidents fell in the same class.

All those jobs are “safe” however, in comparison with those in the next group. The menace of death creates an ominous distinction between the sixth and seventh classes.

During the construction of a building, a few years ago, two men were killed. One was a truckman, hauling steel, crushed when a beam slipped from its sling. The other was a riveter; he fell ten stories. It happened that both men carried accident insurance. The cost to both had been practically the same. But when they were killed, the truckman’s policy paid $1,000, and the riveter’s paid only $200!

That was the company’s limit on death claims of riveters and other workers in the seventh class or higher—$200. It represents a sinister calculation of their chances of death and the company prefers to avoid that additional risk!

If a riveter is hurt, and lives, he is paid the same as a truckman or a cutlery grinder would be paid for the same degree of disability. In other words, the riveter’s danger of injury, not counting death, is as great as the truckman’s danger of injury or death.

In his own peculiar way, a trapeze performer takes about the same chances as a riveter. Others who go just as far to meet danger, are steam-shovel laborers, comb benders and jig-saw operators, sailing-vessel captains, and locomotive engineers.

THE hot-blast tender in a Bessemer steel mill is a step closer to peril; and a freight brakeman is still closer. The latter runs nearly twice as much chance of injury as his engineer! Death isn’t very important in these comparisons because it means a much smaller payment than serious disability.

Among the ninth-class men, working in as much danger as brakemen, are well drillers and quarrymen who use explosives, operators of corn-husking-and-shredding machines, lumber-camp river drivers who guide floods of logs downstream, cartridge makers, fireworks handlers, sponge fishers, and seamen on sailing vessels.

A man in any of these occupations is seven or eight times as likely to be injured or killed as a bookkeeper.

As great as the difference is, it would be far greater, except for the fact that automobile accidents and accidents at home cause more injuries and deaths than accidents at work. The office clerk is just as likely as a quarry-man to be the victim of a car, or a fall in the bath tub. It is the additional danger of the quarryman’s work which makes his hazard more than seven times as great.

The auto toll has become so serious, however, that many companies now are considering a new system of classifications, with only four groups of occupations. They think the traffic Juggernaut is crushing out all minor differences of hazard to human life.

Distinct from the perils that follow a man through the twenty-four hours of the day, the dangers that exist while he is at work proba-bty are watched more closely by compensation-insurance companies than by any others. In the last ten years, they have spent more than a billion dollars in settlement of claims against employers by injured workmen—as well as by the relatives of workmen who were killed.

LIKE the accident-insurance companies, they regard clerical office work as the safest occupation. Unlike the accident companies, however, they cannot exclude death from their calculations, even in the most dangerous industries. And in case of serious accident, they may have to pay many times as much as the amount of the ordinary accident policy. Figured on this basis, a comparison of jobs discloses many with terrific hazards.

In New York, a structural-steel worker’s danger is just 506 times as great as a stenographer’s.

Cleaning the outside of an old building is ten percent more hazardous than putting up steel for a new one.

Accidental injury or death is 339 times as likely on a compressed-air caisson job as in an office.

Air-transport pilots and all flying employes on scheduled routes are in 175 times as much danger as the “safest” workers.

Stevedores run sixty-three times the risk of clerical workers while they load or unload ships by hand and hand truck; and 155 times as much if power hoisting machinery is being used!

These are the average dangers in the industries. On individual jobs, there may be wide variations. When a large employer buys compensation insurance, an inspection engineer decides whether he is likely to have fewer or more accidents than the average for his business. Studies are made of his accident record during the preceding five years, the skill of the men he employs, the presence of safety devices—and the special efforts for accident prevention.

IN ANY job, the insurance company knows that the danger really depends on two things. One is the inherent hazard of the work, the opportunity for an accident. Working on a window ledge or a scaffold thirty stories above the ground, or shoving a plank against the teeth of a circular saw which doesn’t know the difference between wood and flesh, creates more possibilities for accident than guiding a fountain pen over smooth bond paper. But a part of the peril—often a very large part—is within control of the individual.

The science with which insurance companies calculate the risk of an occupation does not reveal any method of abolishing accidents altogether. But it shows where they are most likely to occur. And it suggests that if one man, because of his job, has to take twice or three hundred times as many chances of injury or death as another man, he will do well to be at least three hundred times as careful!

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