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Last edited 17 Feb 2021
Deadly construction sites
Modern technology has revolutionised many aspects of modern life, including the efficiency and safety of construction sites. However, it took a long time to reach our current level of health and safety.
Here we take a look at two of the most deadly construction sites in history.
Perhaps one of the best known construction projects of all time, the Panama Canal, was started by the French government in 1887 to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and make maritime trade easier.
Ferdinand de Lessaps was charged with the task of planning and constructing the canal after his success with the Suez Canal. However, De Lesseps only visited the site a few times and the dense jungle and poor working conditions led to more than 200 deaths a month. Attempts to control the outbreak of disease were unsuccessful as it was not known that mosquitoes were carriers of malaria. An estimated 22,000 workers died during the initial building period.
The project was then taken over by the USA in 1904. The USA inherited a depleted workforce, damaged equipment and a mammoth task. The work continued and mosquito carried diseases were minimised by the end of construction thanks to the work of Dr. Carlos Finlay and Dr. Walter Reed. Improvements included mosquito nets, better hygiene and the elimination of stagnant water.
Despite this however, a further 5,600 workers died.
The White Sea-Baltic Canal, or White Sea Canal as it is often known, is a ship canal in Russia constructed in the 1930s by Gulag prisoners. The Gulags were forced labour camps created during Lenin's time in power and reaching their peak under Stalin. Until 1961 it was known as The Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal.
The canal is 141 miles long, running through several canalised rivers and Lake Vygozero. The canal was originally planned to improve trade and construction with the ability to move materials more efficiently. However, the water level is too shallow in many places to allow large boats to pass. Therefore, the canal still only carries light traffic of between ten and forty boats a day.
The Soviet Union constructed the canal as part of their infamous five-year plan. The canal was completed four months ahead of time in an attempt to show the efficiency and strength of the Soviet Union. The canal was the first construction project that used the Soviet Unions forced labour from Gulags. The camps and prisons supplied 100,000 convicts, suggesting that this would help them 'reforge' - a Soviet concept of rehabilitation.
In reality though, prisoners existed in brutal conditions. Teams were forced to live in cramped, uncomfortable surroundings and competed against each other with increasing working hours and rising intensity of labour.
12,000 workers died during construction with numerous more injured. 12,000 workers were freed at the end of construction as a reward for their forced labour and as further propaganda for the success of the Soviet Union.
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