Some of the Deadliest Construction Projects in History

When a construction project goes wrong, the outcomes can truly be horrendous.
Christopher McFadden
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The construction industry, by its very nature, can be very hazardous, to say the least. So much so, in fact, that when it goes wrong, the devastation to life can be horrendous. 

Many of the lives lost in the following projects could easily have been avoided. But that's looking back with 20/20 hindsight! It's a sad truth that some of the greatest engineering achievements in history have been paid for with very real blood and tears. Ethics aside let us take a tour through history at some of the deadliest construction projects in history.

What are some of the world's most catastrophic construction projects?

The following list spans fairly recent history where records are more or less reliable. We have ranked the following based on the death toll but the first entry is included because of the tragedy involved. There will be many other entries that could easily replace it but, as you will see, the sheer tragedy of the event, we believe, justifies its position. We welcome your comments and suggestions for other entries on the list. 

Brace yourselves and please note that this list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. The 1978 Willow Island disaster was a serious construction project fail

deadliest construction projects willow
The memorial to the workers killed during the Willow Island disaster. Source: Snoopywv/Wikimedia Commons

Death toll: All 51 of the project's construction workers

There are other projects with higher death tolls that could have come in 10th place, but the sheer tragedy of this one puts it above the others in our opinion. Can you imagine an event that kills the entire workforce in one fell swoop!

Well, that's exactly what happened at Willow Island. The project's crane failed and collapsed, hitting the tower, which subsequently also collapsed and all 51 workers who were on site were crushed to death.

2. Grand Coulee Dam disaster

deadliest construction projects  Grand Coulee Dam
Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation/Wikimedia Commons

Death toll: 45+ workers

Building dams has always been a rather risky affair, requiring plenty of explosions and hard work, often at height. Between 1933 and 1942 the Grand Coulee Dam was under construction on the Columbia River in the US.

Working at times in very tough conditions, seventy-eight men died working on the original dam. Three more died building the third powerhouse, where work started in the late 1960s. In 1984, one more died while hauling dirt along Lake Roosevelt in an effort to stabilize shores near the dam.

Tragically, most of the earlier deaths were the result of falling debris from the dam. Today it is one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the United States. 

3. The Hoover Dam was a famous failure

deadliest construction projects hoover dam
Source: Mariordo/Wikimedia Commons

Death toll: 96 workers

Probably one of the more famous construction projects in history, the Hoover Dam is an impressive structure that harnesses the power of the Colorado River. Given the scale of the project, the death toll was relatively low.

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Deaths were due to heatstroke, cardiac arrest, and other factors related to the task at hand. Apparently, rumors of bodies buried in the interlocking concrete blocks are somewhat of a myth.

4. The building of the Aswan Dam is a fatal building project

deadliest construction projects aswan dam
Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Death toll: Around 500 workers

With a workforce of over 30,000 workers, somewhere in the region of 500 lost their lives when building the Aswan Dam.

The project required the diversion of the Nile River, which had severe environmental and cultural impacts on the surrounding areas. Such was the scale of the project that 100,000 or so people were relocated and many precious archeological sites were lost.

5. Another catastrophic construction project was the Karakoram Highway

deadliest construction projects karakoram
Source: Colegota/Wikimedia Commons

Death toll: 900+ people

This highway stretches over 1,200 kilometers and connects Islamabad in Pakistan with Kashgar in China. It is the highest-elevation, paved international road in the world. The road traverses some of the most treacherous and unstable mountains in the world.

Owing to this, it's no surprise most of the deaths were caused by landslides. This is still a serious hazard today for its many road users.

6. Hawks Nest Tunnel was another of the world's deadliest construction projects

deadliest construction project hawks nest
Source: National Park Service

Death toll: 470 to 1000 workers

Initially intended to be a simple diversion for the New River in West Virginia, this construction project became a seriously deadly disaster for the US. Poor health and safety regulations sadly resulted in many deaths from silicosis, from the mining operations.

Of the approximately 5,000 men that worked on the project, an estimated 2,900 worked inside the tunnel. Of these men, silicosis claimed the lives of at least 764 workers, and probably many more.

7. United States Transcontinental Railroad also claimed many lives

deadliest construction projects transcontinental railroad
Source: Colfax Teri/Wikimedia Commons

Death toll: Estimated to be between 1000-1500

During the mid-1800s the US government decided to build a railway between Council Bluff and San Francisco. Given the age and lack of concern for workers' well-being, the official records are somewhat thin on the ground. The vast majority of laborers were Chinese immigrants, and deaths were often not recorded, so the actual death toll will likely never be known.

8. White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal was a very deadly construction project too

Death toll: 12,000 - 25,000

deadliest construction projects white sea canal
Source: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

The White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal connects the White Sea, Russia to Lake Onega. Totaling 227 km (141 miles), the project required a claimed total of 126,000 workers to complete the project. Death tolls vary between 12,000 and 25,000. Many of the workers were political prisoners and working conditions were awful, with primitive tools and little safety equipment. Many of the prisoners died from starvation, cold and physical exhaustion.

9. The Panama Canal claimed a lot of lives

deadliest construction projects panama canal
Source: Cesar Okada/iStock

Death toll: At least 27,500 -- throughout all phases

The Panama Canal was built over several stages and ultimately became a truly international affair. The project was initiated by the French in 1880. Between then and 1904, the death toll was estimated to be at least 22,000, with most dying from malaria and yellow fever. 

The actual number is difficult to determine as the French only recorded deaths that occurred at their hospitals.

After the U.S. assumed control in 1904, approximately 5,609 more workers died from diseases and accidents. Only 350 of the U.S. deaths were white Americans; 4,500 were West Indian workers.

10. Many people were killed during the construction of the Burma-Siam Railway

deadliest construction projects burma railway

Source: Phyo WP/Wikimedia Commons

Death toll: 90,000 Civilians and 12,400 (possible 16,000) POW's

Famously nicknamed the "Death Railway" this railroad was built by the Japanese to provide troops and supplies to Burma in WW2. Local residents and prisoners of war were forced to work on the railroad.

Estimates include around 60,000 Allied POWs were "encouraged" to participate, with at least 12,400 dying during construction. Many of the losses have been attributed to starvation and brutality from their captors, as well as disease and exhaustion.

"The Bridge over the River Kwai" immortalized the struggle of the POWs during this horrendous period of history. Some critics go as far as to say that this film doesn't actually portray the seriousness of conditions for the prisoners. Such a death toll is, frankly, incredulous.

We can only imagine the circumstances of their internment.

11 - The Suez Canal likely killed many more than any of the others listed above

deadly construction projects suez
Source: Naval History & Heritage Command/Wikimedia Commons

Death toll: Estimates vary widely, but some claim 120,000+ over the thousands of years of construction

Another incredibly deadly construction project is the Suez canal. While estimates do vary widely, it is widely accepted that many thousands of workers likely died during its construction.

For this reason, with no reliable sources, we decided not to include it in the main list above. One problem with any figures given is that the canal has been under construction, in various ways, since ancient Egyptian times.

The bulk of the current infrastructure was built by the French-owned Suez Canal Company, which completed the 193km (120-mile) construction between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea in the 1860s. 

This phase of the construction relied on forced Egyptian labor and many died of lung diseases, dysentery, hepatitis, smallpox, tuberculosis, and phosphorous exposure.  The canal is still claiming lives today too. 

With no reliable sources over the millennia, we will likely never really know the final death toll.