The infrastructure being built for Qatar’s World Cup is using the most cutting-edge construction technologies. Yet due to the poor treatment of migrant workers, an estimated 4,000 people could die building it. A new timeline of construction deaths shows this inconsistency throughout history: Even though construction methods have improved over time, worker conditions don’t always keep pace.
Last year, on the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal, I chose 10 construction projects that took exceptionally high numbers of human lives to highlight the price of progress across varying pieces of infrastructure. Rob Tindula at Safer America used my reporting and added some data-crunching of his own on behalf of the attorney group DAM Firm. He plotted each of the projects chronologically on a timeline and added more notable structures. But he also did something really smart: He calculated the number of reported deaths per 1000 workers, which gives even more insight into how dangerous some of these conditions were for humans.
Beyond the usual marquee-grabbing projects like the Panama Canal and Burma-Siam Railway, Tindula adds many projects to the timeline which I didn’t even know were so dangerous, like how Vegas’s CityCenter was nicknamed CityCemetery for six construction worker deaths. I was actually shocked to learn how many people died building skyscrapers like the Sears Tower and World Trade Center; that even well into the 1970s these could be dangerous places to work. And that the Chrysler Building, which was constructed in the 1920s at a frenetic speed to win New York City’s skyscraper race, killed no workers at all.
Tindula also came across some bizarre trivia in his research: During the Golden Gate Bridge’s construction, a rule of thumb among construction crews building large steel structures was that that one worker would be killed for every million dollars spent. “It seems that what we are comfortable with as a society, in terms of human lives for these massive projects, is always shifting and hopefully we get to a point where no life is ever devalued to the point of being expendable,” he says.
A few disclaimers, which are the same for my original article: Tindula and I both focused on projects built in the modern age, as construction records are more accurate. (There are accounts that 400,000 to one million people died building the Great Wall of China, for example, which cannot easily be verified.) The way that projects record and report deaths are also different so there’s really no universal standard for the stats.
But one trend is clear—and this holds true for what’s happening in Qatar—the unethical treatment of migrant workers or prisoner labor always results in a higher number of deaths. Even though what’s happening in Qatar is horrific, it’s better than what might have happened a century ago, says Tindula. “As awful as conditions are for those poor workers today, it’s almost impossible for us to fully grasp how horrible conditions were in the past.”