Accidents are nothing new, but when humanity entered the industrial age, workplace accidents became a lot more…deadly. Improvements in manufacturing, power production, transportation, mining, and every other industry out there may have brought about the modern world, but they came at a cost.
Industrial accidents have been happening since the early days of the industrial age, and many of them were preventable. Often, oversight and regulations could have mitigated a disaster, or the ever-present “human error” problem could have been stopped before things got out of hand. Unfortunately, for these ten accidents, many died, but they didn’t have to.
10The Port Chicago Disaster: The United States
On the evening of July 17, 1944, the San Francisco east bay experienced a massive explosion that lit up the night sky. The blast originated at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine when a cargo ship that was being loaded with ammunition destined for the Pacific theater exploded.
The blast resulted in the deaths of 320 sailors and civilians. An additional 390 people were injured in the worst homefront disaster of WWII. The Port Chicago Disaster highlighted unsafe working conditions at Port Chicago. This led to hundreds of sailors refusing to load munitions.
As a result, the so-called “Port Chicago 50” were convicted of mutiny and were given 15 years of hard labor and a dishonorable discharge. By 1946, all but three were released. The incident sparked controversy over the proceedings, which many felt unfairly discriminated against the sailors.
Nearly two-thirds of the dead were enlisted African Americans. This fact and the subsequent court-martial resulted in widespread allegations of discrimination within the ranks. In 2019, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution officially exonerating the court-marshaled men.
How it could have been avoided: This disaster resulted from unsafe working conditions and a lack of training. Most of the dead weren’t trained to load munitions, and the hectic schedule created room for errors.
9The San Juanico Disaster: Mexico
On November 19, 1984, a massive explosion destroyed the liquid petroleum gas (LPG) tank farm in San Juanico, Tlalnepantla de Baz, Mexico. A series of blasts completely destroyed the farm, and it consumed 11,000 cubic meters (388,000 cubic feet) of LPG, amounting to one-third of Mexico City’s supply.
The explosion resulted in significant destruction at the farm and the nearby town of San Juan Ixhuatepec. The total death toll isn’t known, but it is estimated to be between 500 and 600 dead, with 5,000 to 7,000 people suffering severe burns. The San Juanico Disaster remains the deadliest LPG disaster in world history.
The explosion resulted from an LPG leakage, which was likely caused by a buildup of excess pressure. This resulted in the formation of a vapor cloud that ignited when it came in contact with an open fire pit around 5:40 am. The subsequent explosions were so massive, they registered on seismographs at the University of Mexico.
How it could have been avoided: The gas detection system installed at the farm was found to be ineffective. Had it been in proper working order, the leak would have been detected, keeping the system from rupturing, which led to the explosion.
8The Oppau Explosion: Germany
On September 21, 1921, around 4,500 metric tons of ammonium sulfate mixed with ammonium nitrate fertilizer (mischsaltz) exploded. The resulting blast killed between 560 and 600 people, and it wounded around 2,000 more. The explosion resulted from the workers’ use of dynamite to loosen the chemical mixture from a 20-meter-tall (66-foot) silo. This was actually considered a safe and standard practice, and it worked about 20,000 times before the disaster.
On the day of the explosion, it turned out that the mixture of ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate fertilizer wasn’t a 50/50 mixture as everyone believed. Tests performed after WWI found that any mixture consisting of less than 60% nitrate wouldn’t explode. Because of this, using dynamite to free the mix from the silo was common.
Unfortunately, the last time this was attempted, the dynamite acted as a detonator, and the silo exploded. It was so loud, people heard it in north-eastern France and as far as Munich, Germany. Around 80% of the buildings in Oppau were destroyed, leaving thousands homeless.
How it could have been avoided: The previous test’s conclusions about the mixture proved to be false. Additionally, the plant’s mixture wasn’t producing ammonium sulfate nitrate at the desired 50/50 ratio. Changes in the manufacturing process a few months earlier made the substance more explosive, which wasn’t considered. The explosion could have been avoided had these facts been known.
7Courrières Mine Disaster: France
Mining accidents have been going on for as long as people have dug into the dirt. Still, none have reached the level of severity as the Courrières Mine Disaster. On March 10, 1906, a coal-dust explosion resulted in Europe’s worst mining accident. The explosion caused the deaths of 1,099 miners when it tore the mine apart around 06:30 in the morning.
Nearby residents woke to the massive blast, which didn’t kill everyone in the mine. Around 500 of the 1,795 miners that went into the mine were able to escape to the surface after the explosion. Unfortunately, most of them were severely burned or were suffering from having inhaled various mine gases.
The explosion was the result of a fire that began the previous afternoon. A fire broke out in the Cecil Pit, which the miners attempted to extinguish by depriving it of air. They sealed off the outlets, leaving the fire to smolder. Unfortunately, fissures in the pit’s walls released flammable gasses into the area. This caused the explosion, which blasted debris throughout the mine.
How it could have been avoided: The cause of the fire remains a contentious debate to this day. Still, it might have been avoided had the miners used safer Davy lamps in lieu of naked flame lamps. Ensuring there were no exposed flames in the mine should have prevented the fire and subsequent coal dust explosion.
6The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster: Ukraine
Most people know of this one, but it bears repeating again based on its massive impact. On April 26, 1986, the world witnessed what would become the most devastating nuclear accident ever seen. The No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, USSR, resulted in more cost and casualties than any other disaster of its kind. Unlike the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the Chernobyl disaster resulted from numerous (avoidable) human errors.
The reactor was put into an unstable status during a planned safety test, but the operators weren’t aware of the risk this posed. They continued with their test, which completed and triggered a reactor shutdown. Unfortunately, the reactor didn’t shut down; instead, it began an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction.
The influx of energy caused the core to melt down, resulting in several explosions. This caused a fire and released radioactive contaminants into the air that blanketed Western Europe and the USSR with nuclear fallout. Around 100 people died as a result of the disaster. Still, as many as 16,000 people throughout Europe died due to the spread of radiation.
How it could have been avoided: A series of events—all of which could have been avoided—resulted in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Incorrect operating instructions, poor training, a faulty design, and operator negligence were all to blame for the accident.
5Benxihu Colliery Disaster: China
During WWII, the Japanese took complete control of a previously joint Chinese-Japanese mining operation in Benxi Liaoning, China. Unfortunately, the mine experienced a catastrophic coal-dust explosion on April 26, 1942. When the explosion happened, it sent flames bursting all the way to the mine shaft entrance, which Japanese guards blocked.
The Japanese guards kept people from entering the mine, holding off all rescue attempts. To complicate matters, they also shut off the ventilation and sealed the pit opening. They did this without evacuating anyone from within the mine, leaving the surviving Chinese workers to suffocate and die. This increased the death toll significantly, which the Japanese reported as 34.
This number was later corrected twice until it was listed at 1,549 people. The Benxihu Colliery Disaster was the worst in the history of coal mining, which is saying something, as there have been numerous deadly accidents worldwide.
How it could have been avoided: It’s not clear whether or not the explosion was preventable. That said, a Soviet investigation found that most of the deaths occurred when the guards sealed the mine off, leaving more than a thousand to die of carbon monoxide poisoning, and those deaths were likely preventable.
4The Collapse of Rana Plaza: Bangladesh
Garment factories have been the site of numerous workplace disasters, but they pale compared to what happened to the Dhaka garment factory in Savar Upazila in the Dhaka District, Bangladesh. Rana Plaza was an eight-story commercial building that housed the garment factory, and on April 24, 2013, it collapsed.
On April 23, cracks appeared in the building, which pushed the owners of a bank, several apartments, and some shops to close. Unfortunately, the building’s owners didn’t follow suit, and the garment workers were made to return the following day. The cracks widened, and during the morning rush, the building collapsed due to widespread structural failure.
How it could have been avoided: The Rana Plaza collapse is the deadliest structural failure and deadliest garment-factory disaster in history, but it didn’t have to be. The building collapsed due to several factors, all of which were avoidable. It was constructed on a filled-in pond, making for a poor structural base.
Additionally, the building wasn’t rated for industrial use, and it was constructed with three additional floors that weren’t included on the building permit. Cheap materials and an overt disregard for safety led to the building’s collapse, but had the owners heeded the warning the day prior, the building would have collapsed, but it wouldn’t have taken 1,134 people with it.
3The Bhopal Disaster: India
The vast majority of the incidents on this list involve an explosion of some kind, but that’s not always the deadliest kind of industrial accident. On December 2, 1984, the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, had a leak. The gas leak would continue to the next day, though it didn’t result in an explosion…the reality is far worse.
The leak exposed the surrounding area to methyl isocyanate gas, a highly toxic organic compound used in the production of pesticides. It is incredibly deadly, so when a giant cloud of the stuff covered the land, the people suffered. The final death toll amount still hasn’t been determined, but the numbers range from at least 3,787 to as many as 16,000.
Deaths were horrific, but so too were the injuries. More than half a million people were injured, with many suffering debilitating and disabling injuries. The leak was caused via a backflow of water into a tank, which kept methyl isocyanate from properly flowing.
How it could have been avoided: The accident resulted from slack management and continuously deferred maintenance. It was so clearly the result of terrible oversight, the accident led to eight Union Carbide employees being convicted of death by negligence.
2The Halifax Explosion: Canada
On the morning of December 6, 1917, the SS Mont-Blanc collided with the SS Imo in a strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbor to Bedford Basin. The collision was problematic because the Mont-Blanc was carrying high explosives. After the crash, a fire broke out on board, which resulted in an incredible explosion estimated to amount to 2.9 kilotons of TNT.
At the time, it was the largest manmade explosion ever made, though nobody wanted to go down in history for the accident. The explosion killed 1,782 people in the immediate area. The deaths came from the explosion itself, the blastwave, debris, fires, and collapsed buildings in the immediate area. In addition, around 9,000 people were injured from the blast.
Almost every manmade structure within an 800-meter (half-mile) radius was utterly destroyed. Trees were snapped in half, and debris scattered for miles. News of the Halifax Explosion quickly spread, and it wasn’t long before an official investigation was implemented to determine what happened. In the end, it was found that both vessels were to blame for the accident.
How it could have been avoided: Both ships were granted clearance to enter the strait, but the Imo did so at excessive speed. When it approached the Mont-Blanc, an attempt was made to avoid an accident. Unfortunately, that became impossible, and the two vessels slammed into one another. Had the Mont-Blanc had a guard ship, and if the Iwo maintained safe speeds, the accident probably wouldn’t have occurred.
1The Banqiao Dam Failure: China
The Banqiao Dam failure wasn’t related to a single dam that failed; it involved 62 dams failing consecutively. In August 1975, Typhoon Nina caused increased flooding, which resulted in the total failure of the Banqiao Dam and 61 other dams spread through Henan, China. The failure resulted in the third deadliest flood in recorded history.
The area affected was immense and included a population of 10.15 million spread across 30 cities. A total of three million acres, or 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 square miles), were inundated with water. More than five million homes were destroyed. While the death toll has never been confirmed, it’s estimated to be somewhere between 171,000 and 240,000.
The cause of the dam failure wasn’t the typhoon. Granted, it didn’t help, but the typhoon didn’t destroy the dams that failed. Instead, the barriers failed for multiple reasons ranging from poor construction materials and bad design to widespread ecosystem damage, which led to the destruction of a forested region, making the flooding possible.
How it could have been avoided: The main issue was how the dams were built—with an emphasis on water retainment and no concern over potential flooding. The Great Leap Forward resulted in widespread engineering projects like dams, but at such a speed that safety and quality were compromised. Had the dam been better designed and built to better standards, it’s likely they would have held under the strain of Typhoon Nina.