The Worst Jobs Ever? 3 Industries That Have Put Workers at Risk

nail polish manicure

Source: iStock

Think your job sucks? Chances are, it could be worse. While there are laws on the books in the U.S. and many other countries to protect workers from abuse and exploitation, some businesses appear to regularly flout those rules. Employees may be forced to work in dangerous conditions, pushed to work off the clock, or paid below the minimum wage. Violence and intimidation may be used to keep people from speaking up, which often allows abuse to flourish.

Take nail salon employees. A recent investigation by the New York Times revealed industry-wide patterns of wage theft, as well as evidence that constant exposure to possibly toxic chemicals was affecting manicurists’ health. In response, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would create a task force to help put a stop to workers’ rights violations.

“This task force will crack down on these kinds of abuses in the nail salon industry, enforce all of New York’s health and safety regulations, and help ensure that no one – regardless of their citizenship status or what language they speak – is illegally victimized by their employer,” Cuomo said in a statement.

Perhaps manicurists — many of them undocumented immigrants from Asia — will see their working conditions improve as a result of increased scrutiny. In reality, the problems that plague nail salons may be hard to stamp out. While the media spotlight sometimes forces businesses to take steps to improve working conditions, change rarely happens overnight. In some cases, problems persist in plain sight for decades.

Unfortunately, manicurists aren’t the only workers being exploited by their bosses. Here are three other industries where workers frequently toil in unsafe conditions.


Source: iStock

1. Meatpacking plants

In 1906, journalist Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a novel about the harsh lives of immigrants in Chicago. In part, he wanted to expose the terrible conditions at the city’s meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses, which he researched first-hand. The book sparked reforms, mostly because readers were outraged when they found out what was going into their sausage.

Today, working conditions at the country’s slaughterhouses are better than they were in Sinclair’s day. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not still pretty awful. A 2005 report from Human Rights Watch documented a lax approach to worker safety at many meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses. The report also claimed that workers’ compensation claims were frequently denied and that a culture of intimidation, with retaliation against workers who attempted to organize to improve conditions, was commonplace. Pressure to work faster and process more animals often results in injuries and other problems, according to industry critics. More than 28,000 meatpacking workers were injured in 2013, according to the Washington Post, though many likely do not report their injuries.

“The work speed is so unrelenting that it has forced workers to urinate and defecate in their clothing while working on the line because employers deny reasonable bathroom use, violating workers’ rights to dignity,” said Tom Fritzsche, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, when he testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on conditions in the U.S. poultry industry.

2. Garment factories

Garment factories have long had a reputation for being dangerous places to work. In 1911, 145 employees at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company died in a factory fire, most of them young immigrant women. The tragedy resulted in new laws requiring U.S. factories to meet certain safety standards, like installing sprinklers.

Still, demand for cheap clothes means that 100 years later many garment industry still toil in sweatshops, though usually not in the U.S. In 2013, more than 1,100 people died when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh. In 2012, more than 100 people died in a fire at another garment factory in Bangladesh. Fires at clothing factories in Pakistan, Italy, and China have killed hundreds more workers in recent years.

“Effectively what we have done is exported our sweatshops and exported our factory fires,” Robert Ross, a professor at Clark University, told PRI’s The World in 2011. “And it’s as if the 1911 conditions had been lifted up by an evil hand and dropped into Bangladesh.”

Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

3. Coal mines

It’s no secret that coal mining can be a dangerous job, though the higher-than-average salaries mean that it’s still a desirable career for some. After all, a miner can earn roughly $30,000 more per year than than the average worker according to the National Mining Association, often with no more than a high school diploma. The job has become safer over the years, too. Though more than 300 workers have been killed in coal mining accidents in the U.S. since 2004, that’s a huge improvement over conditions in the early 20th century, when thousands of miners died each year.

Still, coal mining is risky, and it’s even more hazardous when companies skirt rules designed to keep workers safe. A 2014 investigation by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News found that many mining companies aren’t paying penalties for safety violations, and that workers were more likely to be injured at those mines than at operations that don’t pay up when they violate safety rules. After a 2010 explosion killed 29 workers at a West Virginia mine, Massey Energy, the company that operated the facility, was found to have concealed serious safety problems from inspectors.

Problems are also rife at coal mines in other countries. More than 900 workers in China died in coal mining accidents in 2014, though that’s a big improvement over 2002, when more than 7,000 lost their lives in such incidents, according to Radio Free Asia. And in 2010, 33 Chilean miners were trapped underground for more than two months. Though the miners were eventually rescued, some blamed poor safety conditions for contributing to the disaster.

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