The 10 Worst Workplace Accidents in History

The workplace stories that will rock you to your core.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Worst Workplace Accidents

Think about what we associate with the phrase “bad day at work”. Usually, it’s things like making a mistake, forgetting an important deadline or arguing with one of our colleagues.

While workplace stress is very real and can be detrimental to our health, we still have a choice: to learn to manage our emotions and expectations better, set boundaries, or leave if all else fails. Above all, it’s important to keep such bad days into perspective, because things could be going way, way worse.

In this article, we’ll be looking at some of the worst workplace accidents that have occurred since the beginning of the 20th century that resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of people getting injured or losing their lives.

1. Courrières mine disaster

Courrières mine disasterJÄNNICK Jérémy via Wikimedia Commons

The Courrières mine disaster is Europe’s worst mining incident. It happened on March 10, 1906, about 140 miles north of Paris and cost 1,099 people their lives.

An explosion of coal dust is thought to have swept through the mine, although what caused the initial ignition remains unknown. It was possibly a mishandling of mining explosives or the ignition of methane by one of the miners’ lamps.

Some 500 miners were able to escape, many of which were inflicted with severe burns and suffered the effects of gas inhalation.

2. Halifax explosion

SS ImoWikimedia Commons

The Halifax explosion refers to a collision between two ships in the waters of Nova Scotia, Canada, on December 6, 1917. The ships in question were the SS Mont-Blanc steamship, which was carrying war materials including high explosives to be delivered to France, and the unladen SS Imo, which was coming in to pick up relief supplies for Belgium.

The low-speed collision damaged the Mont-Blanc steamship’s benzol barrels, leaking vapors that then caught fire. In 20 minutes, the fire had grown so out of control that it caused the steamship to explode, killing 1,782 people and injuring another 9,000.

3. Oppau explosion

Oppau explosionWikimedia Commons

The Oppau explosion happened on September 21, 1921 at a BASF (referring to Badische Anilin- und Sodafabrik, the world’s largest chemical producer) plant in southwestern Germany. Specifically, a tower silo at the plant, where a mixture of ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate fertilizer was stored, exploded during blasting work that, up until that point, had been routinely carried out by the workers with no problems.

It's thought that a change in the mixture’s manufacturing process a few months prior to the incident contributed to the accident: it made the substance likelier to explode, lowering its humidity and making it less dense.

An estimated 500–600 people lost their lives at Oppau.

4. Benxihu Colliery disaster

The Benxihu Colliery disaster, also known as the Honkeiko disaster, refers to a deadly explosion that occurred on April 26, 1942 in China’s Liaoning province. Gas and coal dust exploded, causing one of the mine shafts to erupt into flames and costing 1,549 people their lives.

It wasn’t the explosion that took most of the lives, though; it was the decision of the Japanese guards encircling the area to seal the pit following the explosion without evacuating it first. Carbon monoxide poisoning is what took most of the miners’ lives.

The Benxihu mine incident is considered the worst-ever disaster in the history of coal mining and the second-worst industrial accident to be recorded.

5. Texas City disaster

Texas City disasterWikimedia Commons

The Texas City disaster refers to an industrial accident that took place on April 16, 1947 that led to 581 deaths.

One of history’s largest non-nuclear explosions, the Texas City port explosion was triggered by a fire on the SS Grandcamp steamship, which was docked at port and loaded with 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate. Although smoke was noticed by the crew onboard, they chose not to use water to extinguish the fire in order to keep the cargo intact, instead attempting to snuff out the flames unsuccessfully. A chain of reaction fires and explosions (heard 150 miles away) occurred in nearby ships and oil-storage facilities.

The disaster drew the first class-action lawsuit against the US government.

6. Seveso disaster

Seveso disasterWikimedia Commons

The Seveso disaster took place on July 10, 1976 some 12 miles north of Milan, in Italy’s Lombardy region. Specifically, a reactor at the town’s chemical manufacturing plant (owned by Industrie Chimiche Meda Società Azionaria) overheated when a batch process was stopped before its completion. Having no steam temperature reading instruments available to them, the operators were unaware of the reactor’s rising temperature.

With the relief valve opening eventually, 6 tons of chemicals were released into the air, covering an area of 6.9 sq mi. Although no lives were lost, long-term studies have shown that the accident inflicted a range of health problems upon people in the area, including chloracne, increased cancer occurrence and higher mortality rates from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

The Seveso disaster killed some 3,300 animals, mostly rabbits and birds. Another 80,000 animals were also slaughtered afterwards to prevent the chemicals released in the accident from entering the food chain.

7. Bhopal gas disaster

Bhopal gas disasterBhopal Medical Appeal, Martin Stott via Wikimedia Commons

The Bhopal gas tragedy took place on December 2, 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in central India.

Operating errors, maintenance failures and lack of safety controls led to a tank leaking 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas into the air and taking 3,500 people’s lives instantaneously. Over time, however, the figure rose to 15,000–25,000, with the deadly cloud blowing for miles and enveloping hutments and shantytowns in the area, exposing hundreds of thousands to the toxic gas.

To this day, what happened in Bhopal is considered the deadliest accident in history.

8. Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster

The Chernobyl nuclear plant accident is considered the worst nuclear accident in history. It happened on April 26, 1986 when technicians carried out a poorly designed experiment on the No 4 reactor. Running it at low power caused an explosion that released huge amounts of radiation into the atmosphere — 400 times more than the radioactive material released in the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, to put it into perspective.

Although the official death toll for Chernobyl says that 31 people lost their lives due to acute radiation syndrome and the blast, radiation exposure is likely going to end up costing 4,000 people their lives over the years. And that’s at the very least; some estimates suggest the number will be close to 100,000.

9. Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Deepwater Horizon oil spillDVIDSHUB via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike most other entries on this article, the Deepwater Horizon accident is sadly very recent. It took place on April 20, 2010 at an oil drilling rig operating in the Gulf of Mexico.

What happened was that a surge of natural gas blew through a concrete core that had been placed on the oil well beneath the rig by Halliburton, an oil field service company, shooting up to the platform and causing 11 fatalities. The most likely explanation for this is that the concrete mix used was too weak.

Although the lives lost were far fewer than in the other accidents on this list, Deepwater Horizon’s impact on wildlife and the environment remains inconceivable: 100 miles of shoreline in Lousiana saw erosion rates double; billions, if not trillions, of animals including sea turtles, dolphins, gulls and pelicans are estimated to have perished; and the oil spill remains detectable to this day.

10. Rana Plaza collapse

Rana Plaza collapseSharat Chowdhury via Wikimedia Commons

The Rana Plaza incident refers to the collapse of an eight-story building in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013, which cost 1,134 people their lives. At the time, the building was housing five factories and employing 5,000 people, manufacturing apparel for brands like Walmart, Zara, Mango and Benetton.

The building, which was questionably built on a filled-in pond, had originally been designed for commercial purposes but then converted for industrial use. Additional floors were built, expanding it beyond its authorized design.

In a testimony by Reba Sikder, a former garment worker at Rana Plaza, she recounts how the warning signs on the day were ignored — and how the workers were ultimately blackmailed into entering the building: “My colleagues and I heard that a massive crack had appeared in one of the columns of the building… However, my line chief insisted that if we did not return to work, we would not get paid our wages for the month and also would not receive our overtime benefits.”

Final thoughts

Although workplace accidents are, unfortunately, commonplace, fatal and catastrophic accidents like the ones in this article don’t happen often. And, as horrible and gruesome as they may have been, these accidents have led to changes being made to better safeguard workers’ safety and wellbeing. With each new rule and practice set in place, we can hopefully ensure that, from now on, there will be fewer gruesome stories like these unfolding in the world, particularly in the workplace.

Have you read about or witnessed any workplace accidents that aren’t in this article? Reply in a comment and let us know.


Originally published on October 8, 2015.