Four decades ago, workplace disasters used to claim the lives of around 14,000 U.S. workers every year. From collapsing buildings to exploding coal mines, the country has witnessed some of the worst workplace accidents in the past. A common thread that binds most of these catastrophic incidents is the sheer disregard for workers’ safety. In most cases, the accidents could have been avoided by adhering to safety regulations.
The introduction of regulatory bodies such as OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has reduced the number of fatalities in recent years. Nevertheless, more than 5000 workers died on the job in 2017. Unfortunately, many of the workplace accidents don’t get adequate media attention and fizzle out from public memory very soon. In addition, workers are often aware of the safety hazards but don’t protest out of the fear of losing their jobs.
While minor mishaps happen occasionally, U.S. history is replete with several cataclysmic workplace tragedies. Here is a list of the six deadliest workplace disasters the U.S. has ever witnessed:
1. Pemberton Mill Collapse (Lawrence, Massachusetts)
On the evening of January 10, 1860, the five-storied Pemberton Mill building crumbled into pieces. The resulting debris, resembling a 50-feet high pyramid, trapped almost 600 millworkers comprising many women and children. Designed by architect Charles Bigelow, the 7-year old building was prone to minor trembling every now and then.
While many people died within minutes of the collapse, more than 200 were saved by rescue workers. However, a second tragedy struck that night when a rescuer’s broken lantern spilled oil over the debris. This caused a massive fire killing many of the trapped survivors. The death toll of this incident is close to 145, while more than 160 people were injured.
Image via Timeline
One of the main causes of the disaster was the use of poorly built cast-iron columns to support the building. In addition, the building was cramped with heavy textile machinery, subjecting the floors to excessive strain. While a jury found the architect responsible for the flawed construction, no one received any kind of punishment for the disaster. Today, the mill stands tall at its original location, after being rebuilt by the owners.
2. Scofield Mine Disaster (Scofield, Utah)
On May 1, 1900, the U.S. witnessed one of the worst mining accidents in the Winter Quarters Mine near Scofield, Utah. The mishap occurred when ten 25-pound kegs of black powder detonated in one of the sections of the mine. The explosion ignited coal dust, quickly spreading the fire to other parts of the mine.
Image via Ghosts and Ghouls
Some of the miners immediately succumbed to the explosion. However, others were killed due to asphyxiation by toxic fumes. In an attempt to escape, many of them walked towards the source of the explosion and were subjected to poisonous gases. Others were so deep inside the mine that they couldn’t escape.
The disaster claimed the lives of at least 200 men, although rescue workers speculated that the death toll could have been higher. Many of the deceased were found holding on to their tools, suggesting that they died very quickly. A memorial was erected near the site to honor the victims.
3. Great Molasses Flood (Boston, Massachusetts)
A giant storage tank at Purity Distilling Company in Boston’s North End burst open on the afternoon of January 15, 1919. The explosion set free more than 2 million gallons of molasses, which then gushed out like a tsunami wave. Moving at a speed of 35 miles per hour, the wave flooded all nearby streets, uprooting buildings and crushing people to death.
Witnesses compared the deafening sound of the exploding rivets to that of a machine gun. Investigations revealed that the steel tank wasn’t equipped to support the insurmountable weight of the molasses. In addition, fermentation may have led to excessive pressure build-up inside the tank. Rescue efforts were also hindered as the molasses turned increasingly viscous at night due to a drop in temperature.
Image via Curbed Boston
At least 21 people were killed and more than 150 were injured as a result of the incident. It took several weeks and sustained efforts by cleanup crews and rescue workers to clean the entire neighborhood. Many locals claimed that the aroma of the molasses lingered in the air decades after the tragedy struck.
4. Texas City Explosion (Texas City, Texas)
The French-owned vessel, SS Grandcamp was docked at Galveston Bay in the Port of Texas City on April 16, 1947. Crew members had finished loading 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer when they noticed smoke in the cargo area. The crew, in a futile attempt to contain the fire, tried to douse the flames without water. However, the fire soon spread, detonating the entire cargo of ammonium nitrate on board.
Image via Houston Chronicle
The initial explosion set off a chain reaction of fires and explosions in neighboring ships and crude oil tankers. The entire dock was engulfed in flames killing many firemen, spectators, and crew members. Shrapnel, consisting of glass pieces and debris, was sent flying into the air injuring many school children.
At least 581 people were killed, while more than 2000 were reported to have been injured. The explosion also triggered a massive tidal wave that destroyed the homes of thousands of people. It has been described as one of the worst non-nuclear explosions mankind has ever seen.
5. Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (Gulf of Mexico)
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig was situated in the Macondo oil prospect, only 41 miles away from the coast of Louisiana. On the night of April 20, 2018, a surge of methane gas caused an explosion in a recently installed concrete core. At the time 126 crew members were on board. Out of them, 94 were rescued in lifeboats and helicopters; at least 17 of them sustained injuries from the blast.
Image via CBS News
The U.S. Coast Guard conducted a three-day search to recover the bodies of the 11 missing workers. However, they were never found and it is believed that they died in the explosion. It ultimately caused the rig to capsize and sink, causing the worst oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. This caused extensive damage to marine life and adversely affected the fishing and tourism industries.
6. West Fertilizer Company Explosion (West, Texas)
An ammonium nitrate explosion in a fertilizer storage and distribution unit killed at least 35 people and injured more than 160. The events unraveled on the evening of April 17, 2013, when emergency dispatchers were informed about a fire in the plant. Twenty minutes later, the unit exploded even as firefighters were trying to contain the flames. Five volunteer firefighters and four emergency responders were among the deceased.
Image via The Atlantic
The force of the explosion was equivalent to that of 7.5 to 10 tons of TNT. It resulted in a 93-feet wide crater, causing damage to more than 150 buildings. Despite thorough investigations, the cause of the fire could not be ascertained.
Workplace disasters, irrespective of their scale, are unfortunate for any company and its employees. Although these events have become infrequent of late, they are yet to become a thing of the past. Strict safety regulations and whistleblower protection for employees who reveal hazardous work conditions are a must for the prevention of such disasters. In addition, you can use a mass notification system like RedFlag to alert your employees instantly in case of any emergency.