Ridiculously dangerous jobs someone has to do
Are you bored of your office job? In search of a rewarding new career? Looking for a little excitement in your 9-to-5? Some people love the predictability and repetition of their cubicle farm jobs. Others might find that heading in to the ol’ carpet-walled box and stamping TPS reports just doesn’t provide the same heart-pounding, blood-boiling, sweaty-palmed thrills it once did.
Well, good news, hardened cubicle farmer! There are some pretty crazy-scary job openings out there, and all you have to do is pick the way you want to die … um … earn a living. Some of these employers pay “danger money,” which is probably really nice until something awful happens to you. But be warned — other employers exploit impoverished workers who do dangerous jobs because there are literally no alternatives.
Ready? Pay attention, folks, because today is career day at the University of Things that Might Kill You.
Compared to some of the other jobs on this list, linemen have it pretty easy. Safety standards are high in U.S. jobs, so although you’re doing much riskier stuff than the average guy sitting in a cubicle (although admittedly, sitting in a cubicle can be pretty emotionally and psychologically dangerous) your job doesn’t usually have the same level of risk as your average Sherpa or snake milker.
According to CNN, linemen make just under $60,000 a year in exchange for climbing all over high-voltage power lines in crappy weather. And while they’re working tirelessly in high winds and getting pelted by rain and hail, everyone else is sitting at home with their flashlights whining because they’re missing the mid-season premiere of Gotham. As far as thankless jobs go, being a lineman rivals garbage collecting, although it’s rather shockingly less dangerous than garbage collecting. Garbage collectors see about 90 deaths per 100,000 workers, while linemen only see about 21.5 deaths per 100,000 workers. That’s because garbage collectors might actually be killed by thanklessness — they often die when impatient motorists run them over while trying to pass them on the road. At least when you’re a lineman, you get to go out in style on a wire that can carry up to 500,000 volts of electricity. Ahh, consolation!
For some people, bush piloting is a dream job. Who doesn’t love the idea of soaring over the Alaskan wilderness in a single-engine plane and possibly crashing in a place so remote that if you do survive you’ll probably get eaten by a bear before anyone even notices you’re gone? Lots of people, evidently.
Bush pilots don’t get paid a ton because of the whole dream job thing. Remember the universal law of employment in America: If it sucks, it pays well, and if it’s awesome you probably get a lot less than you’re worth. For people who love flying and the great outdoors, bush piloting is the most awesome job in the world, and also one of the most dangerous.
According to bush pilot David Skelhon, airstrips in the northern wilderness have no control tower and are often miles from the nearest paved road. Pilots are needed to ferry gear and resources in and out of remote places, and the dangers they face aren’t like the dangers faced by pilots who fly in and out of city airports. Wildlife can wander onto the runways, the weather forecasts are spotty and unreliable, and airstrips are often positioned dangerously close to camps, piles of oil drums, and other hazards. The job is so dangerous that many pilots serve for a few months and then leave to find safer work, like garbage collecting or repairing power lines.
Mount Everest sherpa
Even mountaineers will tell you that mountaineering is a dangerous hobby. And Mount Everest is the sanity-sucking, corpse-freezing, loved-one-stealing Holy Grail of mountaineering, which for some reason people still want to climb, even though the dead bodies of those who failed are literally lying around the trail where people can see them and (this is true) use them as landmarks.
Despite a death rate that is a whopping 6.5 percent, climbers show up at Everest every year, willing to pay someone a bunch of money to help them get to the top. The people who accept their money are called Sherpas, and you might think of them as impervious human mountain goats, but the truth is that Sherpas can and do die on the mountain just like the people they’re hired to help.
Remember, about 21.5 per 100,000 linemen die while working. According to Business Insider, bush pilots have it much worse at 287 per 100,000. The death rate for a Sherpa (based on 2004 to 2014 numbers) is 4,053 per 100,000. Of course there aren’t 100,000 professional Sherpas so that number is artificially inflated, but it does give you an idea about actual risks of the job. So why do they do it? According to the BBC, a Sherpa can expect to earn around $6,700 a season, which is roughly 10 times what the average Nepalese person earns in a year. Like so many other things in life, it’s all about the money.
Firefighters deserve a huge shout-out for the job they do — it’s difficult, dirty work with an ultimate goal of saving lives and livelihoods. But firefighting isn’t as dangerous as it used to be. Modern firefighting equipment and safety procedures have helped bring the death rate down to just 2.5 per 100,000, which is actually lower than the national average for all occupations.
Not everyone who fights fires gets to use that stat to comfort worried friends and family, though. Some firefighters do jobs that are significantly more dangerous than the work done by the average firefighter.
If adrenaline is your drug of choice, you might want to look into a career as a smokejumper, which combines the thrill of skydiving with the thrill of being out in the remote wilderness facing a raging inferno and not having any bulldozers, water tankers, or high-tech firefighting equipment to help you do your job. According to Wired, a smokejumper basically parachutes into places that can’t be reached by road and then uses hand tools to try and stop a fire’s forward progression. Smokejumpers train by climbing into a machine affectionately called “The Mutilator,” which is a parachute simulator designed to fling people into the ground from 35 feet at three different speeds. Sounds like fun!
Welding is decent paid work but quite spectacularly un-fun — professional welders work in hot conditions with dangerous tools and are exposed to poisonous fumes and blindingly bright light. Perhaps the only real perk of a welding career is that you get to look like a Star Wars villain, which is probably only really cool for about five minutes.
Here’s an idea, why not weld underwater? You won’t inhale poisonous fumes, it won’t be oppressively hot, and you’ll still get to dress like a Star Wars villain. Well, even with those improvements, underwater welding is actually one of the world’s most dangerous professions.
According to Interesting Engineering, underwater welders work on structures like ships, dams, and pipelines. Welders may have to dive pretty deep with a scuba tank, which means they carry no communication equipment, aren’t tethered to the surface, and are at risk of getting trapped in super-high-pressure areas. Sometimes welders work in specially designed “dry chambers,” which are sort of like underwater balloons that you stand inside of with your high-temperature welding tools and your two pieces of molten metal, which doesn’t sound at all terrifying. The good news is an underwater welder can earn a year’s salary in just a few months, and it’s a pretty big salary. Most of it will have to go into an insurance policy to support loved ones after your untimely death, but at least they’ll be comfortable.
Maybe underwater welding just doesn’t sound exciting enough for you. A high potential for drowning does kind of pale in comparison to a high potential for exploding, so if you really like danger you should consider a career as a landmine remover.
According to Australian Broadcasting Corporation, there are between 50 and 60 countries that still have wartime mines buried in the ground — mines that have the potential to kill anyone who steps on them, drives over them, or looks at them funny, even decades after they were buried.
Some landmine removers are employed by international humanitarian organizations, but others are locals who just need the work. Most landmines are “standard weaponry” that can be neutralized with the same basic techniques — removers partially uncover them and then blow them up with a stick of dynamite, which sounds kind of fun. But improvised explosive devices (IEDs) of the sort used in Iraq are much more difficult to defuse. And experience doesn’t protect you, either — in 2016 a veteran landmine remover with 30 years of experience was killed trying to remove an IED from a location in Daquq, Iraq. So you might want to consider this particular career if you’re looking for adventure or like blowing things up, but mostly if you don’t really have anyone at home who would miss you.
In the old days, bringing in the cows meant saddling up your favorite horse, riding out to the open range, and spending your day chasing the herd, then eating a hot bowl of chili and sleeping under the stars. It’s such a romanticized activity that in the U.S. you can actually sign up for a cattle drive vacation, in which you basically pay ranchers for the privilege of doing their work for them. Some people are marketing geniuses. But anyway.
In Australia, some cowboys figured there had to be a better way (other than getting tourists to herd your cows for you), and the helicopter cowboy was born. Yes, helicopter cowboys are exactly what the name says — instead of horses or ATVs, the cowboys use low-flying helicopters to round up the herd in about 1/6 the time it took back in the golden years.
According to the BBC, helicopter “musterers” fly super-low to the ground and at slow speeds, which means there’s no room to recover from an engine failure. And if your cows run into the trees, you’ve got obstacles to avoid, too. In Australia roughly 10 helicopter musterers die on the job each year, so while it does sound pretty exciting it’s also crazy-dangerous. Unless you enjoy the thrill of near-death experiences, maybe just start a cattle drive vacation outfit instead. We hear the money is good and the death rate is low.
The reason most jobs in the U.S. are relatively safe — even the ones considered dangerous — is that the U.S. has laws that help protect workers from exploitation by their employers. Usually, there are safety protocols in place, workers get equipment, and employers are held accountable for preventable accidents. In other parts of the world, workers aren’t so fortunate.
In Bangladesh, there’s so much poverty that people will sign up for one of the most dangerous professions in the world, despite the fact that the people who pay them don’t really care one way or another if they die on the job. These people are “ship breakers,” and their job is to dismantle ships with their bare hands (more or less).
Here’s what makes the job so dangerous: According to National Geographic, ships are designed to withstand everything the ocean can throw at them, which means wind, water, ice, and human flesh. So breaking them down is difficult, and in the U.S., the process of scrapping an old ship is expensive, mostly because of all those pesky safety regulations. So companies (which do like to save money) will send the ships to Bangladesh or Pakistan for scrapping, because in those countries no one really seems to care if workers die in horrible accidents. It’s kind of like outsourcing to Indian call centers, if Indian call centers regularly dropped giant chunks of steel on their employees’ heads.
You probably didn’t know snakes have milk. That’s because they don’t. They’re reptiles. But you can still get a job as a snake milker if you’re into animals and you think helicopter mustering is for people who lack a sense of adventure.
According to Business Insider, snake milkers are paid to remove the venom from the fangs of live snakes. Why, oh why, would anyone want to do such a thing? Because the venom is actually used to make antivenom, which is the only substance in the world that can save someone from the effects of a snake bite. And while snake bites might be relatively rare here in the U.S., in some parts of the world (Sri Lanka, for example), snakebites are a tragically common cause of death, especially for children. Snake milkers provide the raw material for making antivenom, which means they’re indirectly saving thousands of lives.
Most snake milkers need a master’s degree or Ph.D. in biology or a related field, and salary information is not widely publicized. At least one snake milker (the one profiled by Business Insider) does it for free and without any credentials. And in case you were still on the fence, most snake milkers get bit eventually. Several times. So if you’re not prepared for frequent hospitalizations and possible time off on life support, maybe you should just stick with your plan to become a helicopter musterer.
You have to really need the money to work as a Mount Everest Sherpa or a ship breaker. But how badly do you have to need the money to clean up nuclear waste? That would, at the very least, make it difficult to socialize at parties, you know, with everyone involuntarily moving away when you tell them what you do for a living. Or when they notice the faint glow as the lights come down.
“Nuclear gypsies” are unskilled workers in Japan who generally end up with the dirtiest, most dangerous assignments at nuclear power plants. They’re recruited from day labor sites and aren’t usually told what they’re going to be doing for the day until it’s too late to turn back. According to the LA Times, such surprise jobs might include cleaning up radioactive water, putting nuclear waste into drums, or visiting the site of a recent nuclear meltdown.
You’d think if someone measured how much radiation gets absorbed by the bodies of nuclear workers, conditions at Japanese nuclear power plants might start to improve. Well, someone did do that, and as it turns out, nuclear gypsies account for around 96 percent of the total radiation that Japanese nuclear workers absorb. (The other 4 percent is absorbed by permanent employees.) So basically, Homer Simpson naps at his desk and everyone else turns into one of those three-eyed fish that lives in Springfield Lake. And you thought Japan was an advanced country.
If you’ve ever found yourself looking into the mouth of an active volcano, you’re probably either an avid mountaineer checking something off your bucket list, or you’re an unfortunate 13th-century Mayan virgin in a 20th-century Hollywood movie. For most people, gazing into an active volcano is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But not for everyone, including vulcanists and volcano miners. Vulcanists study volcanoes and usually have lots of safety equipment on hand. Volcano miners work in volcanoes and usually don’t have safety equipment of any kind, unless you count the rags they stuff in their mouths to keep back the fumes.
If volcano mining was a thing in the U.S., it would probably be regulated and re-regulated, and the regulations would have regulations. But we aren’t talking about volcanoes in Hawaii, we’re talking about volcanoes in Indonesia. According to CNN, the people who mine the Ijen volcano in East Java might come to work in a T-shirt, and the tools of the trade are a pole and a couple of baskets on a stick. They’re mining for sulfur, and they often spend long hours in absolutely toxic conditions, inhaling the volcano’s poisonous fumes because their employer doesn’t give them gas masks. The job pays the equivalent of $12 a day, which is sadly a lot more than the men might earn working as farmers. Kind of makes underwater welding sound like a cushy gig, doesn’t it?
The White Helmets are members of the all-volunteer Syria Civil Defence organization. When bombs take out entire buildings and everyone is fleeing the destruction, the White Helmets are the ones who go back in hope of finding survivors.
This isn’t like rescuing people after an earthquake or a tornado. With natural disasters, you can at least be sure no one planted any bombs in the rubble. According to CNN, in Syria, rescue efforts are hindered by “double taps,” which are bombs that deliberately target first responders. How’s that for cold-blooded? Eat your hearts out, snake milkers.
If you want to spend the rest of the day telling your co-workers that your eyes are bright red because you have allergies and not because you’ve been sobbing uncontrollably in your cubicle, go ahead and watch some of the YouTube videos of White Helmets saying goodbye to their children before heading off for a day of pulling babies from piles of rubble in war-torn Aleppo.
There are 3,000 White Helmets in Syria and as of January 2017, 145 had been killed in the line of duty, which would be a death rate of 4,833 per 100,000. That’s just slightly higher than the death rate for a Mount Everest Sherpa. But they keep doing it, not for the $150 a month paycheck but for the tens of thousands of people they’ve rescued since 2012. And that’s actually pretty humbling.