Pandemic Masks

Levels of gratefulness toward essential workers are at an all-time high during the coronavirus pandemic. From the nurses, doctors and care workers that look after us when we get ill to the street cleaners and refuse collectors that make sure that our towns and cities keep on running during the crisis, we have learned a new level of respect for the people who are putting their lives on the line to stop society from falling apart at the seams.

Despite the heightened risks faced by workers at the moment, it is safe to say that we have come a long way when it comes to health and safety in the workplace over the years. With many of us spending more time at home during the lockdown than we are used to, perhaps it is time to reflect on our progress by looking at some of the most dangerous jobs in history.

1. Hatters

You have probably heard of the phrase “as mad as a hatter” before. But did you know that the idiom first arose due to the occupational hazards of making hats in the 1700s and 1800s? In those days, the potent neurotoxin mercury was used to treat the animal furs used by hatters to make the hats which were fashionable at the time. After inhaling the chemical, many hatters suffered severe neurological disorders like hallucinations, memory loss and motor dysfunction. A high price to pay for a nice hat!

2. Child Chimney Sweeps

It was not until the 19th century that a prohibition on child labor was brought about in many Western countries. In the UK, the law was created partly to put an end to the practice of sending young children up chimneys to clean them. If these unfortunate souls did not come down sooty and stinking of smoke, they would often end up falling and seriously injuring themselves. 

3. Matchgirls

The phosphorous used to make household matches is actually toxic to the human body. Before the age of machine production, matches were made by legions of women in match factories. Constant exposure to phosphorous led to a debilitating and sometimes deadly condition that was known as “phossy jaw”, whose symptoms included severe facial disfigurement and sometimes brain damage. 

4. Bubonic Plague Body Collectors

The most deadly pandemic to hit in the last 1000 years was the Black Death. Also known as the bubonic plague, the Black Death was so deadly contagious that it is estimated to have wiped out 25 million people in Europe, around a third of the continent’s population in the 16th century. Among the most at risk were those people charged with removing the bodies that piled up in houses and streets. Many of them caught the disease and died like the people whose bodies they collected.

No matter your job today, there are not many who would envy any of the workers of the past carrying out the jobs described above. While the danger these workers faced was extreme, comparing the risks they faced with the occupational hazards of today’s essential workers is hard without statistical analysis. What is certain, though, is that we should all take a moment to thank those who are out there risking their lives to keep us healthy and well-fed at this testing time.