15 Jobs From History That Silently Killed Workers
Some jobs are more dangerous than others, but workers who do them are usually made aware of the hazards before they start working. However, there are jobs that carry unknown risks, with horrifying occupational diseases hitting workers with no apparent reason.
From irradiated watch-painters to lead-poisoned factory workers, here’s a look at 15 jobs that killed workers without anyone noticing.
The Fur Industry and Mercury
In the 19th century, felt production involved separating fur from animal skin using inorganic mercury. Although the dangers of mercury exposure were already known at the time, many businesses still kept the process a secret, leading to exposure by workers involved.
Mad Hatter Disease
Hatters or hat-makers were likely the workers who most used the felt containing mercury, and would often inadvertently expose themselves to mercury vapors. Throughout the 19th century, hat-makers developed the neurological disorders associated with mercury poisoning, such as tremors, pathological shyness, and irritability, eventually spawning the phrase, “mad as a hatter.” Toward the end of the century, medical studies in the U.S. and Europe identified the cause of the disease. This lead to methods protecting workers from exposure, and eventually to the abandonment of the process altogether.
Early Painters and Lead Poisoning
The toxic effects of lead exposure have been known since ancient times, but that hasn’t stopped people from using the metal. Civilizations such as the Romans were well aware of lead poisoning, which damages vital organs including the nervous system, but they believed that simply limiting exposure would be enough protection. Unintended exposure occurred frequently through lead salts commonly used in paint. The mysterious death of the famous painter Caravaggio is now widely believed to have been caused by lead poisoning, as he is known to have exhibited violent behavior characteristic of the disease shortly before his death.
Sailors and Lead-Contaminated Rum
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While sailing doesn’t directly cause lead poisoning, the occupation did bring sailors in contact with lead contaminants regularly during the 18th century. During the time, rum was often distilled in stills with a lead component, leading to contamination. Since rum became the drink of choice for sailors, thus began widespread cases of lead poisoning among the workers. This was also common among slaves in the Caribbean and American colonies, who drank rum as well.
Lead and the Industrial Revolution
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Metal workers were often exposed to lead fumes, and factories that universally used the durable and corrosion-resistant metal often saw their workers develop lead poisoning as well.
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In the early 1920s, tetraethyl was discovered to be an effective fuel additive, improving engine performance and reducing engine knock. Unfortunately, workers who produced it began showing signs of lead poisoning caused by the fumes, with many going insane shortly before their deaths. Despite this discovery in the 1920s, the use of leaded gasoline was continued until the 1980s. The lead produced by the exhaust still show up in soil, building, and even blood samples to this day.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the match industry used white phosphorous. The women who worked in the factories would often work without proper safeguards, leading to exposure in the form of vapor. Workers soon began complaining of toothaches and swelling of the gums, which eventually led to abscesses and a greenish-white glow in affected bones. The condition also caused serious brain damage, with removal of effected tissue being the only option to prevent death. Modern hygienic precaution and adoption of the much safer red phosphorous have eliminated the risk.