Worker Safety (or Lack Thereof) in the Construction of Modern Engineering Marvels [Photo Gallery]

May 5, 2014

Just as fallen soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, the thousands of workers who died during the biggest civil engineering projects of the past century have made the ultimate sacrifice to produce some of our most treasured landmarks and structural icons.

The contractor that laid the foundation for the Grand Coulee Dam – one of the largest manmade structures in human history – finished the job 14 months ahead of schedule, according to a historical paper by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. The company’s performance was “remarkable,” historian Wm. Joe Simonds explains: Nearly 11,000 men worked more than 27 million man-hours diverting the Columbia River, excavating the dam’s foundation and placing more than 4.5 million cubic yards of concrete.

The contractor lost 45 men in the process – a number considered “acceptable” in the 1930s for a project of this magnitude. (According to the National Records and Archives Administration, a total of 77 workers died during the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam.)

It’s debatable whether or not the death toll from massive civil engineering projects such as the Grand Coulee Dam and Power Complex (which played a key role in the nation’s World War 2 manufacturing efforts) is offset by the collective good that these projects have accomplished. In most manufacturing plants today, EHS professionals will tell you that “zero” is the only acceptable goal for injuries and fatalities – and rightfully so.

Still, given the mind-boggling scope and complexity of these massive projects – most of which were completed long before OSHA’s inception – perhaps it’s a wonder that more workers didn’t perish. Their legacies live on in these engineering marvels.

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