Death certificates reveal link with choice of career

Work can be very bad for your health if you are in the wrong job. If you are a carpenter, fitter, electrician, plumber or gas fitter, you run an above average risk of dying from an asbestos-related disease.

If you are coal miner, there an abnormally high chance that you will die of pneumoconiosis, whereas if you are mining for any mineral other than coal, or working in a quarry, the risk is that silicosis will kill you.

And publicans, bar staff and kitchen staff, particularly if they are male, are statistically more likely than other people to be killed by drink.

The new statistics that show how work can kill come from a huge study by a research team led by Professor David Coggon of Southampton University, who took data from more than 40,000 death certificates issued during the 1990s to collate how people died and what jobs they had done in their lifetimes.

However, their research, published yesterday by the Office for National Statistics comes with a warning not to overinterpret the bald figures. "The results are purely statistical, which means that they cannot prove a causal link between an occupation and a disease, proving only evidence of a statistical association," the study's authors say.

For example, it is a fact that male hairdressers are much more likely than almost anyone else to die from Aids. But this does not in any case suggest that cutting hair causes Aids, because the statistics also show that women hairdressers are less likely than most people to die from the disease. There are other professional groups that are also at greater than average risk from Aids, including tailors, dressmakers, nurses, journalists and other literary and artistic types. Creative people, and people in certain trades in the construction industry, are also more likely than most to die from drug abuse.

Another mystery, which has shown up previously in statistical surveys of this kind, is an unusually high death rate from lymphatic cancer among schoolteachers and university lecturers. There have been serious studies trying to pinpoint whether there is something in the classroom or a lecture hall that is silently killing them, but so far, none has been uncovered.

However, one bright statistician has noticed that the same professional group has a very low death rate from lung cancer or heart disease. By behaving sensibly, they have seemingly avoided the commonest killers, but still have to die from something. Hence what the statisticians call the "spurious consequence" of an unusually high incidence of a different cancer.

The figures also reveal that doctors, dentists, vets, nurses, and women working in the ambulance service are more likely than most people to commit suicide. That should not be taken to mean that their work drives them to despair. What it shows is that when health workers feel suicidal, they have the know-how to kill themselves, and the means are readily to hand.

The statistics also suggested that if you work behind a bar, or you are a man working in the construction industry you are unusually likely to be murdered. For bar staff, that may be a hazard of working among people fuelled by drink. Among construction workers the cause is not, so far as is known, the work itself that draws violence.

Statistically, by far the most dangerous thing anyone can do during the course of their work – perhaps not surprisingly – is drive a car. During the period covered by the study, about 130 men and five women were killed each year by accidents at work, and more than 50 of those were in car accidents.