Three deadly construction projects from history

In 2013/14, construction accounted for 5% of employees in the UK, but 31% of fatal injuries to UK employees. In developing countries, health and safety often remains a low priority – the construction of stadia for the Qatar world cup is on course to kill 4000 migrant workers; a truly horrific figure. Good subcontractor management and communication can significantly reduce fatal and non-fatal construction site injuries, but the nature of the work means that some risk is always present. However, health and safety has certainly come a long way since these deadly projects…

Great Wall of China

We know very little about the methods used during the erection of the Great Wall of China, but given the sheer length of the walls (a total of approximately 5500 miles), historians estimate that up to 300,000 labourers died building the wall, many of whom were buried within the wall itself. The Great Wall is actually a network of different walls, constructed in different ways by different Chinese states for different purposes. In the 3rd century BC, the Qin dynasty unified China and set about destroying the walls that the other states had used for defensive purposes. However, the northern defences were strengthened and joined to create a stern barrier against threats from the north. It wasn’t until the Ming dynasty in the 14th century where the Qin walls received a much-needed upgrade. The Ming walls were built with stone and bricks rather than rammed earth, and were studded with 25,000 watchtowers. This architectural feat remains (arguably) unmatched in scale and ambition, yet it was undoubtedly one of the deadliest projects in history.

Panama Canal

Carving out a 48 mile canal is another incomprehensible engineering feat, but the Panama Canal unlocked one of the most important maritime trade routes in the world. The French started work on the Canal in the 1880s, but work was scuppered by the area’s climate. The workers were unprepared for the rainy season, when the canal rose up to 10 metres. Tropical diseases killed thousands of workers each year, with 200 workers perishing each month. In 1889, the project ran out of money. By this point 22,000 labourers had died. In the early 20th century, the US took over the site. Organisers invested in good quality housing for the workers, new sanitation systems and mosquito nets. The canal was opened in 1914, but despite the best efforts of the Americans 5600 workers died during the U.S. phase.

White Sea-Baltic Canal

This Russian canal was constructed between 1931 and 1933, linking the White Sea in the north to Lake Onega and the Baltic Sea. 30 miles of the 140 mile route are manmade. The White Sea-Baltic Canal was constructed almost entirely by the manual, forced labour of gulag inmates. Over 125,000 labourers were made to work on this project, with between 12,000 and 25,000 of them killed by accidents, disease and exhaustion.

Thankfully, engineering and site safety have improved significantly since these projects were built. Today, companies take health and safety and employee welfare seriously, helped in part by the development of new hardware and construction software.

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