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The Panama Canal (and the Dangers of Construction) on My Mind

F Marie Athey OHST

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F Marie Athey OHST | August 14, 2013 | Comments Off on The Panama Canal (and the Dangers of Construction) on My Mind

The Panama Canal (and the Dangers of Construction) on My Mind

Quick: Where in the world can you see the sun rise in the Pacific and at day’s end, set in the Atlantic? Well, there’s only one place on Earth where you can do that—in Panama. Specifically, on the narrow Isthmus of Panama, a narrow strip of land averaging just 75 miles (120 kilometers) across that originally blockaded the Atlantic Ocean from mixing with the Pacific Ocean. Today, a giant waterway—an engineering feat of massive concrete dams and locks that bucked monumental work site dangers and deaths during its protracted construction—runs through its width: the incomparable Panama Canal.

This August in history celebrates the inauguration of the Panama Canal, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which bestowed upon the Panama Canal that honor, had many good reasons for including it on the list.

  • The Panama Canal is easily among the biggest and most difficult construction projects ever completed.
  • The two-lane canal stretches 48 miles (77 kilometers) through thick jungle across the Isthmus of Panama. It connects Panama City on the Pacific side and Colon on the Atlantic side.
  • It took almost 34 years to complete, although actual construction was not continuous. A French company undertook the initial construction attempt, with excavation starting in 1881. The project, however, was eventually abandoned in 1893, the victim of Panama’s inhospitable terrain and the excessive worker mortality rate from malaria and yellow fever. The Americans took over in 1904 and deploying more modern equipment and employing better construction techniques, completed the project in 1904. The Panama Canal was first used on August 15, 1914.
  • Over 60 million pounds of dynamite were used to help excavate the canal through dense tropical jungle.
  • Some 4.5 million cubic yards of concrete were used to construct its giant dams and locks with 7-foot-thick gates.
  • One of the dams built during the construction of the canal—the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River—created the Gatun Lake, which became the biggest man-made lake of its day.
  • The millions of cubic meters of rocks and soil from the excavation of the 7.8-mile (12.6-kilometer) Culebra Cut, an artificial valley connecting Gatun Lake to the Gulf of Panama across the continental divide, were used to build the shell of the Gatun Dam.
  • When completed, the Panama Canal slashed about 7,870 miles from the total sailing distance between the Pacific and the Atlantic, making it possible for ships to sail from New York to the West Coast in half the original travel time. Before the canal was built, ships had to sail all the way down to the southern tip of South America, then round Cape Horn to get to the Pacific Ocean.

Today, the Panama Canal has become an integral part of over 144 of the world’s trade routes, with most traffic coming from a resurgent Asia. The annual volume of transits has hugely increased since the canal opened in 1914, when it handled just 1,000 ships. By 2008, that total had grown to 14,702 vessels, with the canal handling more than 299 million tons of shipping by 2009—far exceeding the original expected maximum capacity of the canal of 80 million tons annually.

To increase the capacity of the canal, several modernization projects have been started. These include: deepening the Gatun Lake to 37 feet (11.30 meters) to enable ships of deeper crafts to use the canal; widening and straightening the Culebra Cut to 715 feet (218 meters) to allow the bigger container ships to pass; deepening both the Atlantic and Pacific entrances; and most important of all, constructing a third lane (expected to be finished by 2014 or 2015) that will double the canal’s current capacity.

The Panama Canal project exacted a heavy human toll; by the time it opened in 1914, over 26,000 workers had lost their lives due to disease and work-related accidents. Construction, big or small, is inherently dangerous work, but the hazards can be mitigated. When the Americans took over the construction of the Panama Canal they succeeded in reducing the work-fatality total to 6,000 from a high of 20,000 at the time the French abandoned the project. They did it by implementing safer construction methods and better hygienic practices, and by paying more attention to the health and medical needs of the workers. provides online OSHA training course work to help builders create a safe work environment and to help train workers to spot present and potential dangers at the work site.

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