10 jobs you didn’t know were dangerous

When we think of dangerous jobs, there are a few common careers that probably pop into your mind; think police officers, deep sea fishers, construction workers, or truck drivers. But some jobs that sound harmless actually used to be much more deadly than you might have first thought. Most of these jobs are perfectly safe these days, but they didn’t always start that way. Take a look and read about some jobs you didn’t know were dangerous.

Film Projectionist

Up until the 1950s, film was made of a substance called cellulose nitrate, which is so flammable it even burns under water! Handling this stuff was no joke – it’s estimated that in the USA, a film projectionist died every 18 days. Thankfully modern film is made of polyester, which is much more durable and safe.

A strip of Nitrate film
A strip of old nitrate film.
Source: National Film and Sound Archive.

Painter

From all the way back in 400 BC up until the 1970s, lead was added to paint to make it dry quicker and last longer. So if you were a painter during these times, you probably came into contact with a lot of lead, which we now know is bad for your health. These days paint is only allowed to contain a maximum of 0.009% lead, so lead poisoning is no longer a problem.

Dye Maker

In the 19th century, making your clothes bright and colourful wasn’t as easy as it is today. Swedish chemist Karl Scheele created an incredibly vibrant green dye that was all the rage, but he did it using arsenic, a toxic substance that caused everything from rashes to stomach aches and even death. Once the adverse health effects were discovered, it didn’t take long for the dye to fall out of fashion.

Apple green silk 3-piece dress with train and overskirt.
A dress from the 1860s that has tested positive for arsenic.
Source: Toronto Metropolitan University Fashion Research Collection.

Watchmaker

These days it’s little more than a novelty, but in the early 1900s things being glow-in-the-dark was considered magic. Watch and clock dials were painted with radium paint to make them glow, and workers used to keep their brushes pointy by putting them between their lips, unknowingly ingesting the radioactive material and causing devastating health effects.

Shoe Fitter

Up until the 1970s, shoe stores often employed a device known as a shoe-fitting fluoroscope to help their customers find perfectly fitting shoes. They were essentially a little x-ray box into which the customer would put their foot, and the salesperson could look and see if their toes were being squished. Both customers and shoe fitters were exposed to deadly radiation, and you probably won’t be surprised to hear you won’t find these machines in your local shoe store any more.

Adrian Fluoroscope in display in the Dufferin County Museum in Ontario, Canada.
An original Fluoroscope.
Source: Dufferin County Museum, Ontario.

Hatter

In the 18th and 19th centuries, mercury was commonly used in the production of felt, which was then used to make hats. The people who made the felt and hats were exposed to this deadly chemical, and would become irritable, shaky, and even have hallucinations, eventually leading to the phrase “mad as a hatter”. These days, mercury is no longer used to make felt.

Builder/Carpenter

Right up until the 1980s, many building products contained asbestos, including insulation, drywall, and floor and roof tiles. Asbestos was originally used for its insulation and flame-resistance properties, but inhaling asbestos dust also causes major health issues, from breathing difficulties to cancer. It has been illegal to manufacture, import, or use any asbestos products in Australia since 2003.

Workers loading asbestos sheeting at a dockyard, Sydney.
Workers loading asbestos sheeting at a dockyard in Sydney in 1937.
Source: State Library of New South Wales.

Fuel Manufacturer

Similar to paint, tetraethyl lead was added to fuel beginning in the 1920s, increasing its efficiency. But it didn’t take long for the side effects to start showing, with workers in fuel production facilities experiencing headaches, hallucinations, and eventually dying. A production plant in New Jersey was even nicknamed “the house of butterflies” after workers insisted they were seeing insects everywhere. Sadly, despite the effects of lead poisoning being well-known, production of leaded fuel has only been stopped worldwide since 2021.

Match Makers

No, we’re not talking about people who set singles up on dates. From around the 1840s to the 1910s, matchsticks were made using white phosphorous, and many of the workers in the matchstick factories developed a serious condition known as “phossy jaw”. White phosphorous has since been replaced with the much safer red phosphorous, which is still used to this day in the striking surfaces used to light matches.

Women working in a match factory in London in 1871.
Women working in a match factory in London in 1871.
Source: Litteraturen genom tiderna: Kortfattad litteraturhistoria för gymnasieskolan.

Cosmetic Chemist

Radium wasn’t just used to make things glow – shortly after it was discovered, it was believed that it had potent health and wellbeing effects. This led to radium appearing in a variety of cosmetics, including makeup, lotions, hair treatments, toothpaste, deodorant, and even in a drinkable tonic. These days, you definitely won’t find any radioactive materials in your lipstick, we promise.

Jobs in the Future

You might have noticed a common theme amongst these once dangerous jobs – they often involved unknown or new substances, the negative health effects of which weren’t seen for many years after their use. Today, we have either eliminated these deadly substances from our workplaces altogether, or are much better at limiting our exposure to them. And safety practices are better now than at any other point in history.

Share

More articles

7 unconventional jobs for animal lovers

7 great jobs you can do from home

7 careers that celebrate bees

What’s the difference between a career, a job, and work?

13 unusual jobs you might not know exist

Want more to ponder?
Join our free newsletter crew – we don’t send spam, just news and opportunities to help you build your career.

Latest Video

Join our community

Be the first to find out about what's on offer. We'll send you news, resources, and opportunities you can use to build a career you'll love.

Related articles

Scroll to Top