Learn About the Dangers of a Law Enforcement Career

How Policing Compares to the Top 10 Most Dangerous Jobs

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Just how dangerous is a law enforcement career, really? Every year, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases its Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, outlining the most dangerous jobs in America. Like clockwork, after the release of the census, a handful of reporters often write a story highlighting the fact that police officers are not at the top of the list. But is this just to make sensational headlines? While police offers do make the top 15 list of most dangerous jobs, they are just in the fourteenth position - with several more occupations being more deadly.

But, just because criminal justice careers aren't first on the list, don't assume that law enforcement officers are not entitled to the enhanced pensions or health benefits they often receive -- that is a debate for another time and another place.

Occupational Fatality Rate for Police Officers

A hard look at the data shows which jobs are the most deadly in the United States. The truth of the matter is, no matter where policing ranks on the census, law enforcement careers remain dangerous. In fact, following a historic low of line-of-duty deaths in 2009, on-the-job fatalities for law enforcement officers are again on the upswing.

The Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries is a great source of information, but like all statistics, it's the interpretation of the data that matters. The census produces a "fatality rate," detailing the number of individuals fatally injured per 100,000 workers. It also provides a raw number of fatal on-the-job injuries. Making the top 10 most dangerous jobs for 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, are:

  1. Logging workers, at a rate of 136 deaths per 100,000
  2. Fishers and related fishing workers, at a rate of 86 deaths per 100,000
  3. Aircraft pilots and flight engineers, at a rate of 56 deaths per 100,000
  4. Roofers, at a rate of 49 deaths per 100,000
  5. Refuse and recyclable material collectors, at a rate of 34 deaths per 100,000
  6. Structural iron and steel workers, at a rate of 25 deaths per 100,000
  7. Drivers/sales workers and truck drivers, at a rate of 25 deaths per 100,000
  8. Farmers and ranchers, at a rate of 23 deaths per 100,000
  1. Supervisors of construction trades and extraction workers, at a rate of 18 deaths per 100,000
  2. Non-farmer agricultural workers, at a rate of 17 deaths per 100,000
  3. Grounds maintenance workers, at a rate of 17 deaths per 100,000
  4.  Mechanics, installers, and repairers, at a rate of 16 deaths per 100,000
  5. Construction laborers, at a rate of 15 deaths per 100,000
  6. Police and sheriff's patrol officers, at a rate of 15 per 100,000
  7. Electrical power-line installers and repairers, at a rate of 15 per 100,000

A cursory glance at the rate of fatal injuries looks pretty staggering at first blush, especially for the top-rated professions of fishers, loggers, and flight crews. The problem with basing a presupposition entirely on such a rate is that the data is per capita, meaning that in smaller industries the numbers can become skewed.

Understanding How the Fatality Rate in Other Jobs Relates to Policing

In the case of fishers and related fishing workers, for example, the fatality rate for 2016 was 86 deaths per 100,000 workers. The actual number of deaths in the industry, though, was 24. The same can be said of flight crews, who saw a fatality rate of 56, while the total number of fatalities for the industry was 75. Compare that to the 108 deaths of law enforcement officers in 2016 or the 177 in 2011.

In these occupations, the smaller number of workers greatly affects the fatality rate; one or two accidents can easily send the rate skyrocketing, while the actual raw numbers may be significantly lower. If we were to rank dangerous jobs based on raw numbers as opposed to rates, the 2016 (latest data available) list would look like this:

  1. Drivers/sales workers and truck drivers -  918 fatal injuries, 80,180 nonfatal injuries
  2. Farmers and ranchers - 260 fatal injuries
  3. Construction Workers - 254 fatal injuries, 24,650 nonfatal injuries
  4. Grounds Maintenance Workers - 217 fatal injuries, 20,100 nonfatal injuries
  5. Police and sheriff's patrol officers - 108 fatal injuries, 28,740 nonfatal injuries
  6. Roofers - 101 fatal injuries, 3,150 nonfatal injuries
  7. Logging workers - 91 fatal injuries, 900 nonfatal injuries
  8. Aircraft pilots and flight engineers -  75 fatal injuries, 470 nonfatal injuries
  1. Refuse and recyclable material collectors - 31 fatal injuries, 6,170 nonfatal injuries
  2. Fishers and related fishing workers - 24 fatal injuries

The Bigger Picture in Ranking the Most Dangerous Jobs

When ordered by raw numbers, the list looks very different. Numbers, however, still don't tell the whole story. The simple fact is that there is one glaring difference between law enforcement officers and every other occupation on the list. Of all the jobs listed, only police officer deaths include a significant number of murders. That is to say that no one is trying to kill fishers or loggers or refuse collectors.

While traffic-related deaths make up a large portion of police fatalities, they do not make up the majority. Firearms and other felonious causes make up the bulk of line-of-duty deaths. The bottom line, law enforcement professions are the only careers on the list in which being murdered is actually an occupational hazard. 

This point is not at all to diminish the dangers that are inherent in these other professions, but a distinction must be made. Despite the hundreds and, in some cases thousands, of hours police officers spend in academy training, law enforcement careers remain among the most dangerous professions no matter how you rank them.

Criminal Justice Careers are Still Worth the Risk

Despite the danger, though, careers in criminal justice are both fun and rewarding. In fact, an argument can be made that it is precisely this element of danger that entices many to the profession, to begin with.

You don't have to be a thrill seeker to enjoy or succeed in law enforcement, though. Despite the risk, it takes all kinds of people and personality types to make a police department work and to keep a community safe. With proper and diligent training and a survival mindset, police officers can greatly reduce their risk of injury or death and live to enjoy a long and rewarding career.