"Chicago Fire" is a new TV series that chronicles firefighters facing life and death on the job, while "Chicago Code" was about cops fighting crime and danger in the city. But the really dangerous jobs in the Chicago area don't involve guns or fires or even criminals.
Transportation and agriculture might not have enough glamor and drama for TV, but that doesn't mean they are any less dangerous--in 2010, truck drivers and farmers had more workplace fatalities than firefighters or police officers in Illinois.
Just ask Greg Ray, a 34-year-old farmer from Rossville, who nearly lost his leg last month in a combine accident. He was attempting to knock a rock loose from the harvesting machine when his brother accidently turned it on, sucking him up into the machinery feet-first.
"Once he hit that button, I was halfway up the combine, and I could feel my leg being ground up," Ray said. "I was pinned in the head of the combine between belts and sprockets, but he didn't know how to get me out. I told him it's not going to be pretty, but he had to hit the reverse button and spit me back out."
According to the most recent data available from the Illinois Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, the careers associated with the highest number of occupational fatalities were transportation and material moving, management (including farming) and construction. Sales-related occupations were fourth, while protective services rounded out the top five.
"We have a broad range of industries in Illinois," said Jason Wamack, CFOI coordinator for the Illinois Department of Public Health. "There are lots of manufacturing jobs, which aren't as safe as an office environment. Farming is also hazardous, and there's a lot of machines and older equipment out there."
In Illinois alone, there were 203 injury-related occupational deaths in 2010, up from 158 deaths the year before. The 28 percent increase is attributed to an unusually low number of work-related deaths in 2009.
"That year was an abnormally low number," Wamack said. "There was a downturn in the economy and less construction, which is one of the possible reasons" for fewer workplace deaths in 2009.
Men account for an overwhelming number of workplace fatalities, making up 92.1 percent of all injury-related occupational deaths in Illinois, even though they only make up a little more than half of the total workforce.
"These particular industries are dominated by men, so they make up more of the deaths" Wamack said. "But I'm seeing more women in trucking, and they're really finding their footing in that industry, so I wouldn't be surprised if the number of women deaths go up."
The cause of death varied by industry. In agriculture, warehousing and manufacturing jobs, transportation accidents were the leading cause of death, but in construction jobs, falls were the leading cause of death. Violent acts and assaults were the primary causes of death in retail trade and food and accommodation service.
Transportation and material moving occupations suffered the most deaths in Illinois, with 58 workplace deaths--or 26.6 percent of all occupational deaths--in 2010.
Truck drivers and delivery people spend a majority of their time in moving vehicles, which increases their chances of getting into an accident. But they face as much danger outside of the vehicle as they do inside it, especially when delivering goods in high-traffic areas and on narrow streets.
Shawn Burns, who began delivering beer to Chicago bars in 2006, has known several colleagues who have been hit by cars--and even died--while they were pulling cases and kegs out of their trucks and delivering them into a bar or restaurant.
"People think delivering beer is so easy and such a cool job, but it's actually really difficult," said the 27-year-old resident of Old Irving Park. "I've been clipped by car mirrors driving by, and injured my shoulders and back."
Management occupations, which include farming and agriculture jobs, experienced 17.7 percent of workplace fatalities, with 36 deaths in 2010.
The biggest dangers in farming include anything from a tractor accident or chemical exposure to being suffocated in a grain silo or maimed by a piece of heavy machinery.
Like Ray, the farmer from Rossville.
After he was airlifted to the nearest hospital after his accident, he underwent immediate surgery to restore blood circulation and fight off infection in his legs. He was then transferred to a hospital in St. Louis, where he is currently awaiting more surgeries and skin grafts to mend his wounds.
"I don't think people realize how dangerous the machinery is," said Ray, a father of two. "One little slip is all it takes."
"... I am very grateful for everyone that helped me get to where I am, otherwise it wouldn't be a matter of fixing it, it would be a matter of which prosthetic leg do I want."
The third highest number of deaths--9.9 percent--occurred in construction and extraction occupations, with 20 deaths in 2010.
Falls were the leading cause of death, but transportation accidents, chemical exposure and contact with objects and equipment also contributed to construction-related deaths. Construction sites are usually a combination of various trades, which only increases the wide variety of dangers.
Besides the usual scrapes, bruises and strains, 26-year-old ironworker Paul Goodrich says the most dangerous part of his job is working at heights as high as the buildings.
"I worked on a 67-story building on Roosevelt and Indiana, at a height of over 700 feet," said Goodrich, who just moved from Lincoln Square to Burr Ridge. "As an ironworker, I wear a tool belt that can weigh up to 40 pounds, for eight hours a day, working at those heights, out in the elements."
Goodrich has never been seriously injured, but he has known a handful of construction workers who have been killed on the job; one was run over by a truck, and another was crushed by a steel beam.
Although he loves the rush and satisfaction of being an ironworker, Goodrich also recognizes that he works in one of the most dangerous jobs in construction.
"Not to take anything away from our bravest and our finest, but some of (police officer's and firefighter's) time is spent waiting for a tragedy to happen," Goodrich said. "With construction workers, we are at risk the moment we step on the job site until we leave to go home to our families."
Melanie Zanona is a RedEye special contributor.
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