According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5,250 U.S. workers died from injuries sustained at work in 2018. That represented a 2% increase from the previous year, although the actual rate of fatal work injuries remained unchanged due to labor force growth. Over the past 15 years, U.S. workplaces have become a bit safer: The fatal work injury rate declined from 4.5 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers in 2006 to 3.5 in 2018.
Still, certain workplace activities remain quite dangerous. Transportation injuries were by far the most common cause of workplace-related death, followed by fatal falls, slips, and trips. Close behind were incidents involving contact with objects and equipment — a category that includes workers getting caught in running mechanical equipment and being struck by falling objects — and incidents involving violence by people and animals, including workplace suicides.
Lines of work where these hazards are prevalent tend to be more dangerous for workers. According to the BLS, those lines of work include logging, fishing, piloting aircraft, roofing, sanitation, and trucking. Perhaps not coincidentally, many occupations involving these types of work pay quite well. Does that mean they’re worth the risk?
That’s a personal question, of course. Each worker’s tolerance for risk is different. If you’re considering a job or industry with comparatively high rates of on-the-job injury and death, you need to weigh the potential threat to life and limb against the economic benefits — and non-economic benefits, for that matter. This list of the most dangerous occupations for United States workers is a good place to begin.
The Most Dangerous Occupations for U.S. Workers
These are among the most dangerous occupations for U.S. workers as determined by Bureau of Labor Statistics data for workplace deaths and injuries, including each occupation’s fatality rate per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. Many of these occupations involve construction, agriculture, natural resource extraction, or transportation, but industries regarded as lower-risk are represented here as well. Some of these occupations are considered recession-proof, while others are sensitive to the economic cycle.
To provide a fuller picture of the trade-offs inherent in these lines of work and their overall attractiveness to workers considering career changes, this list includes earnings data and projected 10-year job growth as well.
- Total Fatal Workplace Injuries Per Year: 75
- Annual Deaths Per 100,000 Workers: 132
- Total Employment (2019): 56,900
- Median Annual Wage (2019): $41,230
- Projected Employment Growth (2019 to 2029): -13% (-7,500 jobs)
Logging has the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous occupation in America, at least according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data.
That’s most likely due to the equal-opportunity nature of logging-related risk. This business involves not one but several categories of potentially fatal risk:
- Falling objects, such as trees and limbs
- Mishaps involving heavy and dangerous machinery, such as chainsaws, woodchippers, and trailers
- Transportation accidents involving heavy trucks and specialized vehicles
- Falls from high places
Logging workers earn decent but not spectacular money, and the industry’s 10-year outlook is grim. If you’re not set on this occupation, you might want to look past it to another line of work.
- Total Fatal Workplace Injuries Per Year: 30
- Annual Deaths Per 100,000 Workers: 81
- Total Employment (2019): 36,700
- Median Annual Wage (2017): $28,530
- Projected Employment Growth (2019 to 2029): -8% (-2,800 jobs)
Like loggers, fishing workers encounter an abundance of on-the-job perils: rough waters that exacerbate the risk of serious or fatal slips and falls, heavy equipment prone to misuse or malfunction, and cold, wet weather conditions.
Moreover, many fishing workers spend days or weeks at a stretch on the open sea, hundreds of miles away from the nearest medical facilities. With relatively low pay and poor long-term growth prospects, the fishing industry’s risk-reward calculus isn’t ideal.
3. Trucking and Delivery Driving
- Total Fatal Workplace Injuries Per Year: 966
- Annual Deaths Per 100,000 Workers: 64
- Total Employment (2019): 1,506,000
- Median Annual Wage (2019): $32,020
- Projected Employment Growth (2019 to 2029): 5% (75,000)
This broad job category includes local delivery driving, long-haul trucking, and intermediate-range logistics occupations.
Among subcategories broken out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers” had the highest absolute incidence of fatal workplace accidents in 2018, at 831. Drivers of lighter delivery vehicles, such as vans and box trucks, had it comparatively easy. Still, all trucking and delivery driving occupations involve similar perils, including open-road crashes and mishaps involving heavy inventory or loading equipment.
Trucking and delivery driving occupations are poised to see decent job growth in the decade to come. But pay isn’t this category’s strong suit.
To start your search for truck driver jobs, click here.
- Total Fatal Workplace Injuries Per Year: 96
- Annual Deaths Per 100,000 Workers: 59
- Total Employment (2019): 161,600
- Median Annual Wage (2019): $42,100
- Projected Employment Growth (2019 to 2029): 2% (3,800 jobs)
Roofing isn’t as treacherous or isolating as logging or fishing. Most roofing professionals get to sleep in their own beds when the day is done.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park. Roofing professionals routinely work two or three stories up, often without the benefit of harnesses or sturdy railings to prevent falls. They use equipment, such as nail guns, that can be dangerous without proper care. And they’re regularly exposed to punishing environmental conditions: beating sun, relentless heat, and surprise thunderstorms among them.
On the upside, roofers earn decent money and can look forward to modest job growth in the coming years.
To start your search for roofing jobs, click here.
5. Aircraft Piloting and Flight Engineering
- Total Fatal Workplace Injuries Per Year: 70
- Annual Deaths Per 100,000 Workers: 55
- Total Employment (2019): 127,100
- Median Annual Wage (2019): $121,430
- Projected Employment Growth (2019 to 2029): 5% (6,100)
Common-carrier passenger aviation fatalities have steadily declined for years. According to Reuters, 257 people died in accidents involving large commercial aircraft in 2019, down from more than 1,000 in 2005.
Unfortunately, this heartening development doesn’t mean that flying is a zero-risk proposition. Nor does it account for the significantly higher risk involved in small-craft commercial flight. Aircraft pilots and flight engineers still face far greater on-the-job risk than most workers. On the bright side, these highly trained professionals are compensated quite well, and employment prospects remain bright through the end of the 2020s.
To start your search for pilot jobs, click here.
6. Refuse and Recyclable Material Collection (Sanitation)
- Total Fatal Workplace Injuries Per Year: 37
- Annual Deaths Per 100,000 Workers: 31
- Total Employment (2019): 121,330
- Median Annual Wage (2019): $41,400
- Projected Employment Growth (2019 to 2029): 3% (3,600 jobs)
Refuse and recyclable material collection is the quintessential “dirty job” that someone has to do. Sanitation workers deserve our collective thanks for another reason, too: Their work is surprisingly hazardous. These folks cling to the rear ends of heavy, slow-moving trucks, handle heavy loads that may or may not contain hazardous items, and spend hours in uncomfortable proximity to room-size trash compactors.
Needless to say, this isn’t a job for the faint of heart. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that refuse and recyclable material collectors enjoy decent pay coupled with solid projected employment growth.
To start your search for sanitation jobs, click here.
7. Landscaping, Groundskeeping, and Lawn Service Supervision
- Total Fatal Workplace Injuries Per Year: 48
- Annual Deaths Per 100,000 Workers: 28
- Total Employment (2019): 170,700
- Median Annual Wage (2019): $49,370
- Projected Employment Growth (2019 to 2029): 11% (19,400 jobs)
Like sanitation workers, first-line landscaping, groundskeeping, and lawn service supervisors have surprisingly dangerous jobs, except in better-smelling settings. These professionals work with and around heavy, often sharp equipment and drive or ride on rough, unpaved surfaces in specialized vehicles not built for comfort — often in poor or outright dangerous weather conditions.
Their direct reports don’t have it much better. Absolute workplace death numbers for non-supervisory groundskeeping and landscaping workers exceed their supervisors’ by a factor of four, although the actual rate of fatal workplace injury is higher for supervisory workers. The upside, as usual, is above-average pay coupled with impressive projected employment growth.
To start your search for landscaping jobs, click here.
8. Agricultural Work (Farming and Ranching)
- Total Fatal Workplace Injuries Per Year: 257
- Annual Deaths Per 100,000 Workers: 27
- Total Employment (2019): 952,300
- Median Annual Wage (2019): $71,160
- Projected Employment Growth (2019 to 2029): -6% (-61,600 jobs)
This vast occupational category includes all manner of farmers, ranchers, and specialized agricultural workers. Like other occupations involving the production, management, or extraction of natural resources and agricultural products, farmers and ranchers work with a variety of dangerous accessories: heavy machinery, sharp tools, slow-moving vehicles, and ornery animals. And, despite high median pay, their industry is in decline thanks to relentless automation and consolidation.
To start your search for farming jobs, click here.
9. Construction and Extraction Supervision
- Total Fatal Workplace Injuries Per Year: 144
- Annual Deaths Per 100,000 Workers: 21
- Total Employment (2019): 685,000
- Median Annual Wage (2019): $66,210
- Projected Employment Growth (2019 to 2029): 5% (33,000 jobs)
First-line construction and extraction supervisors make up another broad job category where workers face significant on-the-job risks to life and limb. Although they’re not always directly involved in the operation of heavy machinery like excavators and pile drivers, these folks work closely with those who are — putting them in harm’s way with frightening regularity.
Interestingly, extraction and construction equipment operators and laborers — construction and extraction workers, in BLS terminology — experience lower rates of fatal workplace accidents than their first-line supervisors. Construction and extraction supervisors are paid fairly well, however, and the prospects for growth in this line of work are solid.
To start your search for construction jobs, click here.
10. Structural Iron and Steelworking
- Total Fatal Workplace Injuries Per Year: 15
- Annual Deaths Per 100,000 Workers: 16
- Total Employment (2019): 95,900
- Median Annual Wage (2019): $53,650
- Projected Employment Growth (2019 to 2029): 5% (4,500 jobs)
Structural ironworkers and steelworkers work at great heights with heavy, dangerous equipment and inventory, often in punishing weather. Although rare thanks to abundant safety equipment, unsecured falls from dozens or hundreds of feet in the air can be catastrophic, as can blunt-force trauma and crushing industries caused by improperly secured beams or tools. The upside: good pay and above-average job growth prospects through the end of the 2020s.
Sadly, entirely eradicating risk from the workplace is simply not realistic, at least not in the near term. Every occupation involves some degree of personal risk, whether from the nature of the job itself or the incidental activities required to get it done, such as driving to a worksite or riding in an elevator.
As we’ve seen, these perils aren’t shared equally by all workers. Those in occupations involving transportation, heavy machinery, and dangerous circumstances — like rough seas and high places — bear more risk than office-dwelling professionals.
High-risk construction, resource extraction, and transportation jobs do tend to pay well in comparison to lower-risk jobs that don’t require a college degree. Indeed, although all require some amount of on-the-job training, some require little or no experience, making them very attractive to younger workers willing to trade physical security for higher pay.
But that doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to these trade-offs. Let’s be clear: One workplace fatality is one too many. No one should have to worry whether their loved one will make it home at the end of the workday.