As of 2021, American workers are proving by the millions per month to be unwilling to work jobs with low wages, limited benefits, uncertainty over hours, and such drawbacks. Yet for all that, lack of recognition has been the most consistently cited cause for ending employment. All sorts of jobs that were dubbed “essential” in 2020 are included in the staffing crisis. So imagine how impossible it would be to get people to take on jobs where the wages weren’t just low, but the only benefit a person was likely to get was trauma.
Let’s lay some ground rules for the entries, so that all the entries on this aren’t just slaves. It has to be something where there is a hierarchy, an employer, and a wage. So with that in mind, let’s look back through history with an eye for just how much better we have it when we clock in.
10. Battlefield Scavenger
In the wake of a battle that might leave hundreds or even thousands of people dead on a battlefield, either a health and sanitation crisis or a rich opportunity would be left behind depending on how you looked at it. While soldiers tended to get first dibs as far as rifling through the fallen’s effects went (with little concern which side that the deceased fought on in real life) before long there would be those who collected what they could from the dead, including, as mentioned in another Toptenz list, teeth.
As harrowing as the thought could be for the dead, dying, or their families back home, there were a multitude of dangers for the scavengers. Gangs of criminals were an inevitability. In addition to that, a number of predators, particularly wolves were sure to descend on any such environment. Gunpowder introduced the tremendous danger of unexploded shells that could go off at any moment, which is such a lingering problem that shells from World War I are still undergoing delayed detonations today! That’s not even getting into the masses of flies and other forms of pestilence brought by corpses for months after. In 1812 French General Phillipe Seguer wrote of the Battle of Borodino, the most significant battle during Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, that two months later the field was still littered with thousands of corpses that were “half-devoured.”
As disrespectful as it may seem to the dead and dying to pick their corpses, it was utterly necessary for something to be done about all those dead, and in fact there was considerable official sanction for the process. To return to the subject of Waterloo, in 1822, a British newspaper reported that bones of the dead from the battle had been retrieved and brought to the aisle to be processed for fertilizer, the haul estimated to have reached a million bushels.
9. Salt Miner
As has been covered before on TopTenz, you never know what you’re going to find in a mine. For many, though, what you’re most likely to find is fear and pain. Roughly 10% of coal miners will suffer from black lung disease after 25 years underground. Accidents have been so disastrous that in a single disaster in Liaoning, China on April 26, 1942 killed 1,549 miners through suffocation.
Yet as awful as all that is, salt mining adds tremendous hardships onto the mining ordeal. Just breathing the air of salt mines induces such severe dehydration in miners that it takes off even more years than coal mining. Indeed, The Local reported that a 2016 study of 2,000 ancient Roman skeletons found that salt mining was the largest reason that the average Roman worker died at 30, and why many of them were suffering from arthritis at the end of their lives. Salt mining is also work that is especially susceptible to bursts of carbon dioxide or methane gas, grim relief for miners who wanted a quick end to it all.
8. Galley Rower
Working a gigantic oar might seem like the sort of back-breaking toil that you could only get people to take under threat of death or torture. The truth was that Ancient Romans, Greeks, and Medieval naval commanders would only turn to slaves out of desperation. It makes sense: Even the lowliest galley rower to a large extent holds the fate of an expensive ship and its crew in their hands. You wouldn’t want a slave in that position anymore than you would want a slave helping to drive a tank or pilot a drone. Even when they were used in such a way, it was usually a matter of course that victory would mean they would be officially freed.
Yet even free galley rowers were indeed signing up for a horrendous job. Roughly a third of people who were assigned that task as punishment for a crime died within three years. Bewilderingly, despite them taking on a deadly, literally back-breaking job, many contracted galley rowers did not include in their agreements that they be provided with food or lodgings while on land. Surely most captains knew that it would be bad business to let their ship’s engine die of anemia during a voyage, but that doesn’t seem like something where you could rely on the good will of your employer.
7. World War II Submariner
Surprisingly for tens of thousands of naval employees, the march of technology did nothing for their health and well-being. For all their reputation of being the silent hunters of the deep during the early days of the Second World War, by the end of the war the submarines were more of a danger to a kriegsmarine than they were to the Allies. Of 40,000 men who sailed beneath the waves for the Reich, more than 63% were killed and 12% were captured. For perspective, that’s a higher casualty rate than Japanese kamikaze pilots who famously set out intending to crash. For comparison, the deadliest service to fight in as an American was the merchant marines, who suffered a roughly 4% mortality rate.
The main reason it was so costly to be a submariner then was that technology caught up with the submarine over the course of the war, especially when it came to using radar and escort ships. On their way to their deaths, they had to deal with uniquely cramped quarters, pervasive diesel stench, and their food was especially prone to becoming moldy, forcing them to rely on cans. In summary, it seems that when the author of Das Boot dismissed even the harrowing critically-acclaimed 1982 film adaptation as a glorification of the experience of fighting on a U-boat, he had a point.
6. Leech Collector
Some professions sound like a joke on some level. Being professionally bitten by leeches is so unrelatable to a modern person that it has something of that flavor. And yet when using leeches for bloodletting became a fad in the 18th-19th centuries, many people decided it was for them. Some collectors had the luxury of pushing a beast of burden to serve as bait into bog waters that were ideal hunting grounds for the pseudo-medicinal animals, but since that was too risky or costly for many they had to make do with their own legs.
This profession was particularly popular during UK summers, where the soggy environs were ideal for it. An account by George Walker from 1814 states that the profession was most commonly performed by Scottish women, something to consider for modern feminists who feel their jobs are bleeding them dry. It wasn’t so much the march of progress as overhunting the leeches until useful species were believed to have been driven into extinction in too many areas that forced many apparently very stoic workers to change professions.
5. Lead Workers
Despite the common assertion that ignorance contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire through lead plumbing poisoning everyone, including the elite, in fact it would appear not to be the case. Not only did many Roman and Greek elite know lead was poisonous and launch awareness campaigns, but lead only degraded enough to taint liquids to harmful levels when it was used for storing stagnant wine rather than the running water of plumbing, and that had been a practice that dated to the beginning of the Roman Empire instead of merely at the end.
That made it all the worse when Thomas Midgely discovered in 1921 that introducing tetraethyl lead into gasoline made engines run quieter and managed to sell an industry on putting a chemical that had been known to be a neurotoxin for millennia as a fuel additive. Until 1986, thousands of workers were exposed to horrific amounts of lead. An estimated 5,000 a year would die of heart complications brought on by lead poisoning. Midgely himself would nearly be left debilitated by his own invention when he held a press conference in 1924 to mislead the press.
With honesty or even basic morality clearly not a top priority for those with an interest in keeping lead in consumer goods, workers were subjected to abuses that are difficult to imagine. For example in 1975 a lead smelting plant in Kellogg, Idaho was firing employees for having too high of a lead level in their blood and it brought Local 7854 United Steelworkers to file a grievance that became statewide debate. Health implications aside, imagine the stress generated by knowing you could lose a vitally important job working with poison because it had poisoned you too much.
Even today the logging industry is the deadliest field in the United States of America. From logs sliding out of restraints to falling limbs to generally being out in the elements during dangerous weather, it’s a career which kills 86 out of every 100,000 people on the job. That puts it at 33 times the average, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics it’s more than five times deadlier than being a police officer.
So how much worse was it in times past when people had to rely on wagons instead of trucks, there were no rapid emergency medical services? While hard numbers are not currently available, we can extrapolate from the fact that fatalities every year in America on the job have dropped from 300 per 100,000 in mining in 1900 to roughly nine as of 2000 that logging, as of 1900, was killing thousands of Americans per year. A particularly illustrative fact that shows just how lax safety standards were in days past is that in 1917 not a single lumberyard in the state of Minnesota had a first aid facility on site.
3. Body Collectors
At least battlefield scavengers were overwhelmingly dealing with corpses that were the result of combat. When the Black Death came to Europe in the 1340s, teams were needed to dispose of corpses that were potentially swelling with death for anyone that came near them. While the plague doctor has become a familiar figure in popular culture due to the novelty of the beaked mask, that was actually a practical reaction taken from a faulty conclusion: The beak was for storing flowers and other items that provided a pleasant fragrance, as it was believed that avoiding the stink of death was a preventative measure.
With cities such as Florence, Italy losing as much as half their populations to the plague, collecting the bodies became a very well-compensated profession indeed, but how much comfort could that be for people that often had to collect corpses that out of fear from intimates had been left to significantly decompose? And which the collectors inevitably would have to take to dumping areas where they would be exposed to even more potential disease vectors.
Rather than being venerated for being people that took on the most dangerous and necessary professions of their day, reports circulated that cast them in a much more ghastly light. It was said that body collecting attracted such a rough and reckless crowd that it drew many criminals. That element either would mix their victims in with the corpse piles, or they would threaten people that they would add them or their intimates to the corpse pile if not compensated. However true that was, imagine how much suspicion – if not downright danger – that would cause for the law-abiding body collectors.
Gong-fermor sounds like a colorful bit of outdated slang that could make a comeback at any time. It’s a British corrupting of “gong farmer,” which means someone who collects dung. TopTenz lists have talked about just how unpleasant this rendered homes in days past (since some careless fermors were known to carry buckets of the stuff even past families gathered for breakfast), but we didn’t get into just how horrifically dangerous it was to have the profession. It turns out that the fact it was decently well-paid actually made it worse for many.
For example, gong-fermors were prone to being attacked by gangsters, as it was known that they were well-paid and they often had to go to the most crime ridden parts of cities at night, lest their carts disgust all the daytime city denizens. It certainly didn’t help that these workers tended to be immigrants. For larger buildings where cesspits were allowed to collect particularly large deposits, workers were sometimes lowered bodily into one of them, which could very likely mean one of the worst deaths possible. In 1326, one man known as Richard the Raker died just such a death in London.
1. Chimney Sweeps
How ironic is it that many people’s most vivid impression of this profession is their extremely romanticized portrayal in the 1964 hit Mary Poppins? The truth was that practically from the beginning of the popularization of chimneys in Europe during the 15th Century, it was an extremely dangerous job that was inflicted on the most vulnerable. While in the days before child labor laws many very young people were put in harm’s way for money, chimney sweeps were in an especially bad way since often those pressed into it were only four years old.
The reason for this was that only such small children could reach into the angled spaces where soot accumulated in chimneys from those days. Unable to see, barely able to breathe, and in precarious situations anyway, debilitating injuries were practically expected. If that wasn’t morbid enough, they often had to work naked. According to a Swedish study reported by the Chicago Tribune, being a chimney sweep took an average of eleven to twelve years off someone’s life expectancy. Ironically, the reason chimneys were built so dangerously narrow was a safety measure introduced to prevent another fire like the one that consumed much of London in 1666.
It was one George Brewster who put an end to forcing toddlers into chemical residue. Not that he benefited from it. In 1788, he got stuck in a chimney at Fullborn Hospital in Cambridge, UK and suffocated before he could be rescued. The event caused such a public outcry that the same year laws were written raising the minimum employment age. To eight years old. It wouldn’t be 1840 that it was raised into the teen years.
For able-bodied adults, the health hazards of sweeping chimneys were so great they were in a sense revolutionary. The soot caused a very pronounced form of scrotal cancer that became known as chimney-sweep’s cancer. In 1775, it was the first cancer linked to a specific occupational hazard, showing just how prevalent it must have been for people to want to let it be known that they had the condition.
Dustin Koski thanks modern civilization for giving him a career writing books like A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong instead of having to do any of these.