The Cost of a Canal

May 1, 2001
A safety veteran takes a look into the past at the politics, people and safety and health issues encountered during the construction of the Panama Canal.

Most thinking people said simply that it couldn't and shouldn't be done. But in 1870, scientists, engineers, explorers, politicians and even at one point a "safety guy," set out to prove it could.

They plunged into the single largest and most expensive engineering effort, at the time, since the Egyptians had constructed the pyramids.

So began the Panama Canal.

During the next 40 years, an amazing human drama would play out that propelled many people and many nations into the spotlight while ruining the reputations of many others.

The story had many lessons for us safety disciples as well. Lessons that are worth refreshing up on to remind safety people how far our practice has come since that time in American history -- 1904 to 1914.

Killer Hazards

In "The Wonderful Culebra Cut," Joseph Bucklin Bishop described that time as "organization reduced to a science -- the endless chain system of activity in perfect operation."

Well, this "perfect operation" may not be quite the way us safey people would describe it.

Particularly, since the noted historian David McCulloch described this place at the time as, "one of major heartbreaking landslides, dangerous cracks opening up in the ground, entire sides of mountains being brought down with thunderous blasts of dynamite -- all to complete the building of the first manmade canyon in the world. The noise level was beyond belief. It is said that on a typical day there would be more than 300 rock drills in use, and their racket alone -- apart from the steam shovels, the trains and the blasting -- could be heard for miles."

One worker wrote of the Panama construction, "In the crevice between Gold Hill and Contractor's Hill," where the walls were chiefly rock, the uproar, reverberating from wall to wall, was "horrible, just head splitting."

Just imagine the inevitable hearing loss that awaited these construction workers.

Long before OSHA, NIOSH and MSHA, other uncontrolled hazards of mining were faced hourly by workers in Panama. Construction of the canal would take more than 61 million pounds of dynamite, a greater amount of explosive energy than had been spent on all of the nations wars until that time.

Plus, there were significant handling exposures: a single dynamite ship arriving at Colon carried as much as 1 million pounds -- 20,050 pound boxes of dynamite -- in one shipload. Let us not forget the reactivity issues with wet dynamite. Additionally, each box had to be unloaded by hand, put aboard special trains and moved to large concrete magazines built by various points back from congested areas, possibly one of the only concessions to safey at the project.

Records state that at least half of the labor force was employed in some phase of dynamite work. This included long lines of men marching with boxes of dynamite on their heads; gangs of men on the rock drills; and men doing nothing except laying sticks of dynamite into the holes that had been drilled. Now there was a workforce in need of an ergonomics standard.

Doing the math, the aggregate depth of the dynamite holes drilled in an avearge month in Culebra Cut was 345,223 feet or more than 64 miles. In the same average month, more than 400,000 pounds of dynamite were exploded, which meant that altogether, more than 800,000 dynamite sticks, each 8 inches long and weighing half a pound, had been placed in those 65 miles of drill holes, again, all by hand. Although it wasn't called carpal tunnel syndrome or musculoskeletal disorder at the time, I guarantee these workers recognized it for the body pain it surely was.

One can only imagine the dust and respiratory impairments that would have resulted from daily overexposure to silica dust, general dust, dynamite smoke, coal smoke from the shovels and the railroad locomotives -- all kept low to the ground thanks to the Central American health and humidity.

It is said that the estimated height of the excavated earth, if it was piled would have been one city block wide by 19 miles high.

Beyond all of these health issues, of course, were the physical hazards, of which there were hundreds. This was a time even before hard hats, never mind other personal protective equipment we have come to accept as routine, like respirators, anti-vibration gloves, cooling vests, eyewear and ear protection.

Premature explosions occurred all too often as the pace of work increased. "We are having too many accidents with blasts," said Chief Engineer George W. Goethals in 1907. "One blast killed nine men on Thursday at Pedro Miquel and the foreman, too, was blown to pieces."

Several fatal accidents were caused when shovels struck the cap of an unexploded dynamite charge. Another time a 12-ton charge went off prematurely when a dynamite cap was hit by a bolt of lightning -- the deaths of seven men resulted. Looking back years later, one West Indian worker remembered, "The flesh of men flew in the air like birds many days."

The Politics

Even before American efforts began, the project was exacting a serious toll from humanity. The French experience, as far back as 1887, was a disaster, largely because of a stubborn refusal to even consider a redesigned isthmus containing locks. Repeated landslides made it clear to all but the stubborn French, that substantially greater volumes of earth and rock had to be excavated to achieve stable slopes, yet the French stuck with their plan.

By the end of the 1890s, the French investors began to accept the enormity and the full risks of the project as financial troubles loomed and their capital sources ran dry.

Additionally, there were scandals regarding excessive payments and bribes, primarily to reporters to write stories of success when, in truth, failures were everywhere.

One of those caught up in the scandal was Gustave Eiffel (yes, the same), and in short time the project was in receivership.

After five years a second French company tried again, but failed, essentially due to two major obstacles.

The first one -- the excavation landslides -- could be overcome by planning, hard work, and money; the other however, was far more vexing -- fevers -- that were to claim lives of as many as two of three workers.

According to the book, "Remaking the World," by Henry Petroski: "Although it was hypothesized as early as the mid-19th century that mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever, the conventional scientific wisdom was that decaying matter in the soil and generally unsanitary and unhygienic conditions were the true case. French hospitals in Panama were held up as models of cleanliness and attractiveness. Wards were brightened up with tropical flowers, and to keep the voracious ants away from them, the pots were placed in bowls of water. This was, of course, a very efficient means of breeding mosquitoes, and the hospitals were, in fact, inadvertent death traps. By the end of the century, the 20-year French effort came to an end, and the company's excavation rights and equipment were up for sale."

When the American effort began in 1904, William Crawford Gorgas, a chief sanitary officer, who had experienced much success in eradicating yellow fever and malaria in Cuba, was hired.

Maybe one of the first construction projects in history where the importance of worker health was acknowledged with a managment hire.

Unfortunately, there was no evidence of hiring a corresponding chief safety officer, which history clearly shows was, likewise, overwhelmingly needed.

Of course, there was no such profession then. Even if Teddy Roosevelt and others had the foresight to know one was needed.

Could History Repeat Itself?

What does the future hold for the Panama Canal and could it again become a major construction project? As the saying goes, "Never say never."

Modern shipping has greatly increased the size of ships since the early days of canal operation.

The canal can only accomodate ships carrying up to 65,000 tons of cargo, but recently, ships able to carry 300,000 tons have shipped their ways.

Megaships are now under construction that would absolutely require a deepening and widening of the canal that exists presently.

The problem of the ever-increasing size in ships has caused discussion into the construction of a new canal joining the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

There have been discussions on three alternative routes for a new canal through Colombia, Mexico and Nicaragua.

The Colombian and Mexican routes would allow for the construction of a sea-level canal, whereas the Nicaraguan route would require a similar lock system.

If a replacement canal were to be constructed, the economic effect on the Republic of Panama would be a great concern, as the present canal employs 14,000 people of which 4,000 are Panamanians.

It has been suggested that, if a new canal were to be built, the existing canal could be converted to a hydroelectric power station at a relatively small cost.

Unfortunately now, as Panama has no iron ore deposits and lacks oil, natural gas resources, or skilled labor, there is no real need for a new source of cheap power.

As more American companies feel the work of safety people is unnecessary or can be equaled from a simple Web search or the purchase of a CD-ROM, we should remind them what a workplace could again look like without us.

Richard Hughes has been in the business of safety and health for more than 20 years. He is the author of the recently-published book, "Bringing Down the Safety Guy." After years of working as an independent consultant, Hughes now works for Eastern Casualty Insurance in Marlboro, Mass., as a loss control consultant.

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