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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Stacy Rapacon, Online Editor
| July 24, 2013
Here's the thing about the dangerous jobs made famous by reality television shows such as "Deadliest Catch" and "Ax Men" — the pay is generally lousy relative to the considerable (and literal) risk to life and limb. Fishermen and loggers can expect median salaries of about $33,500 a year, $1,250 less than the median for all workers. Yet the fatality rate for fishermen is 36 times the rate for all occupations. That's the highest of any profession. Loggers, at nearly 30 times the overall fatality rate, rank second.
If you're going to take a risky job, you should at least get compensated handsomely for it. So we crunched the numbers on injuries, fatalities and salaries to identify ten occupations offering fat paychecks that more than make up for the elevated risks. And because no career is worth dying for, we tried to favor those with low incidences of on-the-job fatalities. Top earners in many of these fields can enjoy six-figure salaries, in some cases even without college degrees.
Take a look at these ten risky jobs that pay well.
Data sources: All data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unless otherwise noted. Injury and fatality statistics are from 2011, the latest available. The fatality rate for all occupations is 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers. "Top pay" represents the annual salary of a worker in the 90th percentile of an occupation, unless otherwise noted.
Number of workers: 66,270
Rate of injuries/illnesses: 114.4 per 10,000 workers (all jobs: 105.2)
Median workdays missed due to injury/illness: 22 (all jobs: 8)
Median annual salary: $114,200 (all jobs: $34,750)
Top pay: $197,400*
Annual fatalities: 4
Flying may be safer than driving, but gravity still manages to win sometimes, as evidenced by the Asiana flight that went down in San Francisco. Yet crashes are rare. The most common injury to pilots is back strain, no doubt exacerbated by countless hours spent in flight decks. Still, the pay might well make the risks worth your while. Annual median wages for airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers are the highest of all our risky jobs.
You can save yourself the cost of college by heading straight to flight school, though most airlines prefer to hire degree-holders. You'll need the edge. Competition for openings can be fierce, given industry consolidation and the job market's overall weakness. You'll also have to clock the flight hours necessary to even apply for an airline job. The Federal Aviation Administration requires applicants for pilot and first officer positions to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of total flight time.
But if you rack up enough experience and airborne hours, annual pay with the major airlines can soar to $200,000 or more, according to AirlinePilotCentral.com. Similarly plump salaries can be had if you land an offer from one of the flying freight giants. FedEx and UPS pay their captains at least $212,000 and $233,000 a year, respectively, starting in just their second years. Bonus: no whiny passengers.
Number of workers: 23,390
Rate of injuries/illnesses: 122.6 per 10,000 workers
Median workdays missed due to injury/illness: 43
Median annual salary: $45,740
Top pay: $79,790
Annual fatalities: 1
Digging up information can be pretty strenuous work. Gumshoes sustain most of their of injuries in car accidents and physical altercations. But even those tallies are relatively low, so the above-average pay for private eyes may be worth the slightly elevated risk.
Most detective work does not have an education requirement, but the ability to learn on the job is a must, and previous related work experience is a plus. You'll also need a license in most states; requirements vary. And if you specialize in certain fields, say insurance fraud or computer forensics, a related bachelor's degree might be necessary for some corporate investigators.
That expertise can not only help you solve whodunits but also push up your pay. Investigative agencies, both large and small, are by far the biggest employers of detectives. Distant runner-ups are law firms and state and local governments.
Number of workers: 2.6 million
Rate of injuries/illnesses: 128.2 per 10,000 workers
Median workdays missed due to injury/illness: 7
Median annual salary: $65,470
Top pay: $94,720
Annual fatalities: 12
No good deed goes uninjured. Registered nurses endured a whopping 22,150 injuries and illnesses in 2011, about half of which were due to overexertion. A substantial number were also caused by falls and violence, both intentional and accidental. Yet in a testament to the critical role they play in the health care system, RNs tend to miss fewer workdays due to injury or illness compared with all workers.
Typical wages about 88% above the national median might help ease the pain. California caretakers earn a particularly comfortable wage, into six figures in nine West Coast metro areas.
You need a bachelor's or associate's degree in nursing or a diploma from an accredited nursing program in order to become an RN. If you extend your education to a master's degree, you can earn even more; median annual pay for nurse practitioners is nearly $90,000, and top earners make $120,500 a year.
Number of workers: 12,450
Rate of injuries/illnesses: 1,542.1 per 10,000 workers
Median workdays missed due to injury/illness: 17
Median annual salary: $40,060
Top pay: $43,000,000*
Annual fatalities: 14
When your job is to exercise and physically compete on a regular basis, your body is bound to get a little run down. More than half of the injuries reported by athletes are sprains, strains and tears. But what's becoming a little worse for wear when you get to play the game you love for a living?
The above-average pay doesn't hurt, either. Sure, the Jets winning the next Super Bowl is more likely than you banking an eight-digit annual salary. But even typical pro athletes, including minor leaguers, can expect paychecks more than $5,000 a year higher than the national median.
It would behoove players to save that extra income. Athletic careers offer little stability and are often short-lived. And very few sports stars can be like Mike and ride endorsement earnings well into a wealthy retirement — a decade after he hung up his last jersey, Michael Jordan is still out-earning all current athletes. The retired basketball star's 2012 income is estimated at $80 million, thanks largely to his Nike royalties.
Number of workers: 3,480
Rate of injuries/illnesses: 429.6 per 10,000 workers
Median workdays missed due to injury/illness: 13
Median annual salary: $46,880
Top pay: $93,910
Annual fatalities: 5
This small sliver of the workforce, with the fewest number of workers on this list, takes on some big jobs. Commercial divers perform construction and engineering tasks, doing everything from inspecting structures to rigging explosives, with the added challenge of doing it all underwater.
Such demanding work is well rewarded. Typical paychecks weigh about 35% more than the national median. And top earners report making nearly $150,000 on Payscale.com. While the injury rate is high, the actual numbers are less daunting. In 2011, commercial divers reported just 150 injuries — mostly sprains, strains and tears.
To become a commercial diver, you have to pass a diving physical. You'll also need a high school diploma or the equivalent, as well as proper certification. You can find a program through the Association of Diving Contractors International or the American Welding Society.
Number of workers: 456,640
Rate of injuries/illnesses: 119.7 per 10,000 workers
Median annual salary: $59,700
Top pay: $94,340
Annual fatalities: 106
Building up structures can really tear down a worker. Construction foremen, the first-line supervisors on a job site, suffered the second-most deaths of all the occupations on this list. But the on-the-job fatality rate is still a relatively low 14.5 deaths per 100,000 workers. By comparison, the fatality rate is more than twice as high for roofers and iron workers, who spend most of their time laboring at great heights. The majority of injuries suffered by foremen are mere sprains, strains and tears caused by the physical demands of the job.
Most people start working in construction straight out of high school, but reaching the level of foreman can take more than five years of experience. Bear another 15 years or more on the job and you can push your pay above $93,000, according to compensation research firm Payscale. Foremen will find the fattest paychecks in Alaska, where median annual pay is $78,470 and top earners make $124,920 a year. A common step up from this position is construction manager, which enjoys a much lower injury rate and a much higher median pay of $83,860.
More good news: Job openings for foremen are expected to increase 23% (versus 14% for all occupations), adding 131,000 new workers by 2020, according to the BLS.
Number of workers: 632,000
Rate of injuries/illnesses: 281.4 per 10,000 workers
Median workdays missed due to injury/illness: 15
Median annual salary: $55,270
Top pay: $89,310
Annual fatalities: 130
The high drama of being a cop may be exaggerated for television audiences, but real-life police work is truly risky business. Exhibit A: The number of work-related deaths for cops is the greatest of all the occupations on this list. Still, the fatality rate is just 18.6 per 100,000 workers, about on par with taxi drivers.
If you don't mind mixing it up with the occasional physical altercation or high-speed chase, paychecks 59% higher than the national median may be worth sustaining some sprains, strains and tears (the most common injuries for police officers). Cops on the coasts stand to earn even more: the San Francisco and San Jose, Cal., metro areas pay their patrolmen annual salaries of $96,320 and $95,450, on average, respectively. On the East side, officers of the Nassau, N.Y., and Edison, N.J., metro areas make $92,540 and $87,160, on average, respectively.
You can enter the police academy after graduating from high school or getting your GED, though many agencies require some college coursework or a college degree. But you have to be at least 21 years old to become an officer (younger recruits can be cadets and do clerical work until they're of age). A college degree can help fatten your paycheck, however. A B.A. in criminal justice can push salaries into six figures, according to Payscale.
Number of workers: 42,740
Rate of injuries/illnesses: 187.1 per 10,000 workers
Median workdays missed due to injury/illness: 22
Median annual salary: $54,700
Top pay: $80,390
Annual fatalities: 8
Train-track tragedies, such as the deadly derailment in Quebec, are as uncommon as they are heartbreaking. Overall, railroad safety has improved dramatically over the past decade. Since 2004, the total number of railroad accidents has decreased by 28.5%, and on-the-job injuries for rail employees have dropped by 45.0%. Only 22 work-related deaths, or 9.5 per 100,000 workers, were reported for all rail transportation employees in 2011.
Heading the crews of freight and passenger trains and rail yards, railroad conductors and yardmasters have the highest rates of injury of all rail transportation workers, but they have the potential to score the biggest paychecks, too. Locomotive engineers and railroad brake, signal and switch operators sport incidence rates of 68.3 and 79.8 per 10,000 workers, respectively. But their median pay, while still higher than most U.S. workers, is $2,420 a year and $3,360 a year less than the annual pay of conductors.
You need just a high school diploma or the equivalent to get started, and you have to be certified by the Federal Railroad Administration to become a conductor. Most employers require one to three months of on-the-job training. Amtrak and some freight companies offer their own training programs, while smaller railroads may send you to a central facility or community college to prep you for the job.
Number of workers: 23,290
Rate of injuries/illnesses: 248.0 per 10,000 workers
Median workdays missed due to injury/illness: 19
Median annual salary: $50,230
Top pay: $66,830
Annual fatalities: 7
Not surprisingly, pumping the Earth for its resources can really suck the life out of you. Extraction workers, a broad category of workers who mine and drill for oil, gas, coal and the like, recorded a total of 92 deaths and 3,990 injuries in 2011. And while some extraction jobs offer scant compensation for such risks, pay for certain mining machine operators is more tempting.
Take mining roof bolters, for example. These workers, who operate machinery to help prop up underground mines, earn the highest median pay of all extraction workers, besides engineers and supervisors: $54,320 a year. That premium pay comes with the greatest risk; roof bolters, who mostly work in coal mines, have an injury rate of 554.8 per 10,000 workers. Oil and gas drill operators can fare better. Median annual pay is $49,220, but the top 10% of workers make about $84,390. And their injury rate is a much lower 68.7 per 10,000 workers.
Education requirements are minimal to get started (some jobs don't even require a high school diploma). But if you go into mining with a college degree, you stand to earn a fatter paycheck and added safety as a mining engineer. These professionals enjoy lower rates of injury, 89.5 per 10,000 workers, along with higher salaries. Annual median pay is $84,320, and top earners can make $140,140.
Number of workers: 519,850
Rate of injuries/illnesses: 185.6 per 10,000 workers
Median annual salary: $49,840
Top pay: $82,930
Annual fatalities: 62
With high demand to plug in our various devices at home and work, electricians are practically guaranteed prosperous careers. The BLS expects their ranks to grow 23.2% by 2020, making it one of the best job fields of the future.
But this profession comes with its stumbling blocks — literally. Electricians' injuries are most often caused by falls. That's not surprising considering they can spend lots of time at construction sites and on ladders. If you can watch your step, you typically stand to enjoy paychecks 43% higher than the national median.
You can start your career as an electrician with a high school diploma (or the equivalent) and a paid four-year apprenticeship, which you can find through the U.S. Department of Labor. But having a Bachelor's degree can help boost your income; according to Payscale, a college-educated electrician can earn up to about $93,000 a year. Most states also require you to be licensed.
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