At some point in our lives, most of us have probably seen a task so revolting that we've admitted, "You couldn't pay me to do that." But not everyone feels that way. If a job needs to be done, chances are you can find someone to do it -- especially if the price is right.
Whether it's cleaning up human excrement or taking care of the dead, many people are willing to pay enough money not to do it, and they'll gladly pass the buck. Although most of us would rather live in blissful ignorance of what goes on in these nasty but necessary jobs, finding out the grisly details might send us thanking our lucky stars for our cushy jobs. On the other hand, taking a peek into the paychecks might have us considering a career change. If you're willing to get your hands dirty, you'll be able to rake in a nice living, in many cases for only a few months of work out of the year and without a college degree.
A dirty job may mean working with stuff that grosses most people out, but you can make a decent amount of money and you may also be happier with it. Some studies show that jobs with hands-on, manual activities make people happier than office jobs [BBC News]. In the movie "Office Space," the main character despised life as an office drone and finally finds happiness in a lowly construction job.
If you want to make a nice living but dread mind-numbing office work and fluorescent-lit cubicles, one of these jobs might be a perfect for you. But check a weak stomach at the door: These jobs entail revolting, dangerous and sometimes psychologically disturbing duties. First, we'll do a Dumpster dive into the life of a garbage collector.
Most of us wash our hands of garbage as soon as we set it on the curb. If we can avoid the chore of taking the trash out, we toss our rubbish in the trash can and forget about it. Not so for the garbage collector.
If you've ever noticed an overflowing trashcan on a public street, you may have taken a moment to feel bad for the person who'll have to clean it all up. In the pinnacle of dirty jobs, garbage collectors have to deal hands-on with our trash, day in and day out. In this thankless job, they make sure it gets from our curbs to the landfill. Sanitation workers often put in long shifts, traveling up and down our streets to pick up trash while dodging impatient drivers -- who occasionally hit the guys who are emptying trash cans. That's one reason why trash collecting consistently ranks high on lists of dangerous jobs [source: Morsch].
Aside from angry drivers, these guys deal with forces of nature as well -- working in rain, snow and sleet. And let's not forget the smell. The reek of dirty diapers and rotting eggs can't be pleasant, especially combined with -- and particularly after -- stewing in the sun on a hot day. Even if sanitation engineers eventually get used to the smell, it probably doesn't make them popular after working a long shift.
Despite the dirt, the danger and the smell, there's no shortage of garbage collector jobs. The average annual salary for this occupation is about $43,000 [source: SimplyHired]. In California, the average hourly wage is $16.04, and in some places, the overtime can help shoot the pay to over $60,000 a year [source: CEED, Parsons].
Sometimes the hardest tasks have to do with looking within ourselves. And we're not talking about soul-searching. Whatever we eat goes through a 25-foot (7.62 meter) journey in our digestive tract, and when problems arise, there's one kind of doctor we can go to for help -- the gastroenterologist -- also known as a GI doctor. These doctors specialize in the process that most of us wish would remain mysterious -- the body's digestion.
Nobody likes to talk about or describe their digestive problem. Whether it has to do with gas, abnormal stools or a pain in the rear, GIs diagnose and treat some of the most uncomfortable and embarrassing of ailments. So you can bet that the GI's patients aren't always happy to see him.
On top of it all, it's not easy to become a GI. These doctors have to go through four years of medical school, three years of residency and two to four years of a fellowship to become full-fledged gastroenterologists [source: AGA].
Why put yourself through so much grueling training for what's sure to be an aromatic job? Well, if helping people isn't enough of an incentive, it doesn't hurt that GIs make a handsome salary. Most GIs make between $250,000 and $400,000 a year -- not too crappy [source: Salary.com].
To say that oil is a booming industry would be an understatement. Given that modern economies largely depend on it, and as prices soar, you can bet that companies will pay a lot to find and drill for this black gold. But for most workers, striking oil isn't so glamorous in real life. Daily life on an oil rig is dirty and dangerous.
Offshore rig life is especially difficult. It involves spending weeks at a time sleeping, eating and working 12-hour days or nights on a man-made drill rig in the middle of the ocean. Aside from the cramped conditions, heavy machinery and explosive materials make this a perilous job that requires hardhats and steel-toed boots. And the business side of oil drilling isn't the only part that's booming -- the machinery is extremely loud. Workers are typically required to wear earplugs on the job to prevent permanent hearing loss, and they communicate through hand signals.
But if you can stand the strenuous work and the time away from home, you'll be sitting pretty. Even lowly workers can get a nice annual pay over $40,000 [source: Miller]. Salaries can skyrocket for people with certain college degrees and for overseas work [source: OilJobFinder].
This job is a sort of combination of garbage collector and GI, and arguably more disgusting than both put together. Although most people in polite society methodically avoid situations where they need to use a portable toilet, modern outhouses can be lifesavers. As gross as they can be, they'd be worse without the folks who clean them for a living.
Using a tank and a vacuum wand, cleaners must suck up all the waste in a portable toilet. After picking up any stray toilet paper, they also wash down all surfaces that could possibly be soiled, including the walls. This is when a high-pressure hose comes in handy [source: Douglas]. Usually, cleaning one portable toilet takes only a few minutes, and most workers clean from 10 to 60 of them a day [source: AOL]. But it's not always that easy: Portable toilets that tip over require more damage control.
Nevertheless, some cleaners grin and bear it -- and take home $50,000 a year [source: AOL]
When most people think of fishing, they usually think of lazy afternoons on the lake and father-son bonding. It may come as a surprise, but fishing persistently ranks as the most deadly occupation in the U.S. [source: Christie].
If you've ever seen an episode of "Deadliest Catch," you probably have an idea of why that's true. Off the Alaskan shore, crab fisherman face freezing waters and storms that give way to gargantuan ocean waves. If the fishermen can protect themselves from being swept overboard in a storm, they'll still have to worry about the dangers of fishing machinery and coils on crab boats, which can also fling them overboard. And even if they avoid drowning, cold temperatures can give way to fatal hypothermia. These workers brave harsh conditions in shifts that can last as long as 21 hours to haul hefty catches [source: Miller].
But, as you might expect, the crab fishing industry is as lucrative as it is dangerous. For a few months of work out of the year, experienced workers can rake in about $60,000 [source: Miller]. It all depends on how successful the yield is for a particular boat.
Rats, roaches, dark passages and the occasional corpse -- no, we're not talking about a day in the life of Indiana Jones. In a much less glamorous role, the sewer worker deals with all of this stuff and more while braving the depths of the hundreds of miles of sewers beneath our cities.
After we've done our business in the bathroom, all we have to do is flush our waste goodbye, and we'll never have to see it again. But this isn't the case for the people who take care of our sewer systems. Their job entails walking and sometimes crawling through sewer tunnels to inspect for cracks, clogs and other problems. As if wading through human excrement didn't sound bad enough, some workers are also sewage divers. As you probably guessed, they have to go all out to swim through sewage to clean out clogs. In addition to the excrement, smell, and creepy crawly bugs and rats, sewer workers sometimes come across dead bodies, both animal and human.
Before you write off these employees as nuts for voluntarily diving into human waste, note that, with above a high school education, they can make over $60,000 a year [source: Speer]. Many people consider sewer inspectors noble stewards of Mother Earth because they keep our water and our streets clean.
Joining the ranks of garbage collecting and fishing, coal mining is also one of the most dangerous professions today. Although mining has come a long way since "How Green Was My Valley" days, it remains a tough job. Coal mines contain methane, and explosions can occur when falling rocks cause sparks. What's more, unstable mines can collapse and kill workers.
Aside from these dangers, working directly with coal is literally dirty. Forget getting your hands dirty -- working in a coal mine will get your everything dirty. Coal dust coats all surfaces and contaminates the air. Just from breathing, coal miners ingest coal dust and sometimes develop black lung, a condition that causes shortness of breath and emphysema. Although improvements in mine ventilation have reduced the number of cases of black lung, it's still a problem [source: HealthAtoZ].
Nevertheless, even if it's covered in a film of black dust, money is still money. In West Virginia, where coal is a huge industry, coal miners earn an average annual salary of around $64,000 [source: Brook].
Most cultures have long and ancient traditions of funeral rites and special treatment for the dead. Some of these traditions include ritualistic attempts to preserve the body as much as possible. Whereas ancient Egyptians would mummify, many modern cultures embalm.
When a person dies, the body quickly becomes pale and unsightly. This doesn't make for a very pleasant experience when family and friends say their goodbyes to their dearly departed loved ones. That's where the embalming process comes in. It delays the decomposition of a corpse and cosmetically restores it to look presentable for the viewing. It also sanitizes the body to prevent spreading infection [source: Aurora Casket Company].
The details of embalming aren't pretty. It involves first washing the body with germicidal soap and massaging out stiffness. Then embalmers drain the blood and gases and inject disinfecting embalming fluid. Preparing the face involves securing the mouth shut with wires and the eyes shut with glue [source: Redwood Funeral Society]. Morticians can also beautify the body with makeup, manicuring and shaving. They also dress the body before the funeral for viewing.
Embalmers are exposed to toxic cleaning chemicals during the process and to diseases from handling the bodies. In addition to needing a rock-solid constitution in dealing with corpses, those charged with this brave task also have to switch gears and tactfully interact with the family of the deceased.
Embalmers, morticians and mortuary workers earn about $41,000 on average, and the pay rises with experience [source: CNNMoney].
For the modern American, the idea of living without indoor plumbing is unthinkable. Plumbing may be one of the greatest advances of society because it offers us significant comfort and convenience. No longer do we have to step outside to brave harsh elements of nature to get water from a well or to enjoy the privacy of the outhouse. So when pipes get clogged or spring a leak, most of us can't last long without calling in a plumber.
Plumbers have the quintessential blue-collar job, often having to crouch under sinks or through the crawl spaces under houses. If these cramped and dirty conditions aren't bad enough, they deal with our revolting clogs and waste or dangerously hot pipes. Customers commonly call with plumbing emergencies at all hours, making schedules unpredictable.
But despite the drawbacks, plumbers make a nice living, as even entry level plumbers typically pull in between $35,000 and $40,000 a year [source: Salary.com]. On average, plumbers make about $47,000 annually [source: CollegeBoard].
Talk about cleaning up after someone. In the aftermath of a bloody crime or the discovery of an illegal chemical lab, the police investigators rush in to save the day and bring the perpetrators to justice. But in the hurry to clean up crime in the city, police don't have time to clean up the walls. Be it blood and guts or hazardous chemicals, not a lot of people jump at the chance to be a crime scene cleaner.
Murders and suicides can get extra bloody. Throw in fragments of bone, gore and other body pieces strewn about the place, and you've got quite a mess. This job isn't for the faint of heart -- anyone who is prone to getting queasy or emotional won't succeed in this line of work. Developing stress disorders from this work isn't uncommon. It's also pretty dangerous. Even on days they don't have to deal with anthrax-laden labs, they do have to worry about getting infectious diseases from the body fluids. This means suiting up with hazardous materials protection gear.
Depending on how bad the mess is, the cleanup could take a few hours to a few days. But you won't hear these crime scene cleaners complaining too much -- they charge by the hour. With a little experience under your belt and flexibility with your work hours, you can easily make about $75,000 a year with this job [source: Sahadi]. Although you don't need a college degree to get a crime scene cleaning job, it can help boost that salary into six figures.
There's no doubt these past 10 jobs justify the old maxim, "It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it." Maybe the next time we see a garbage collector or meet a funeral home worker, we can tip our hats to them for doing the jobs that most of us couldn't handle for one day.
HowStuffWorks looks at the difference between the salary history and the salary requirements question in job interviews and how to answer them.
- The Best and Worst Paying Jobs
- Are internships worth it?
- Why was Alaskan fishing named the most dangerous in the world?
- How 401(k) Plans Work
- 10 Most Dangerous Jobs in America
- Former Jobs of 12 Celebrities
- Top 5 Highest Paying Jobs in the Film Industry
- How Crime Scene Clean-up Works
- Curiosity Project: What happens to trash in a landfill?
More Great Links
- AGA. "Your Gastroenterologist -- A Digestive Specialist." American Gastroenterological Association. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://www.gastro.org/patient-center/about-gastroenterology
- Alford, Roger. "Coal miner jobs even harder to fill." The News & Observer. Jan. 6, 2006. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://www.newsobserver.com/104/story/385423.html
- AOL. "America's Dirtiest Jobs." AOL. Jan. 4, 2008. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://jobs.aol.com/article/_a/americas-dirtiest-jobs/20060207144909990001
- BBC News. "Blue-collar workers 'the happiest.'" BBC News. March 19, 2004. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/3549633.stm
- Bickerstaff, Linda, Katherine White. "Oil Rig Workers." The Rosen Publishing Group, 2003. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=vrURb1QtmUgC&dq=oil+rig+life
- Brook, Tom Vanden. "Recruits hungry for good jobs head off to coal mines." USA Today. Feb. 14, 2006. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/employment/2006-02-14-miners-cover- usat_x.htm
- CEED. "Labor Market Information: Refuse Collectors." California Employment Development Department. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://www.labormarketinfo.edd.ca.gov/occguides/Search.aspx
- Christie, Lee. "America's most dangerous jobs." CNNMoney. Aug. 20, 2008. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://money.cnn.com/2008/08/20/news/fewer_workers_die_on_job/index.htm
- CNNMoney. "Embalmers." CNNMoney. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://money.cnn.com/magazines/moneymag/bestjobs/2006/snapshots/104.html
- CollegeBoard. "Career: Plumbers." CollegeBoard. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://www.collegeboard.com/csearch/majors_careers/profiles/careers/104058.html
- Douglas, Melanie Joy. "Most Disgusting Jobs in North America." Monster. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://content.monster.ca/9726_en-CA_p1.asp
- Funerals.org. "What You Should Know About Embalming." Funeral.org. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://www.funerals.org/articles/what-you-should-know-about-embalming.pdf
- Funeralplan.com. "Embalming -- The Basics of Embalming and Funeral Services." Funeralplan.com. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://funeralplan.com/products/embalming.html
- HealthAtoZ. "Black lung disease." HealthAtoZ. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://www.healthatoz.com/healthatoz/Atoz/common/standard/transform.jsp?request URI=/healthatoz/Atoz/ency/black_lung_disease.jsp
- Miller, Kerry. "Worst Jobs with the Best Pay." Sept. 14, 2006. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://www.businessweek.com/careers/content/sep2006/ca20060914_736742.htm
- Morsch, Laura. "America's Most Dangerous Jobs." AOL. March 3, 2008. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://jobs.aol.com/article/_a/americas-most-dangerous-jobs/20060124162709990002
- National Geographic News. "Video: Sewer Diver in Mexico City, World's Worst Job?" National Geographic News. Sept. 1, 2006. (Aug. 1, 2008.) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/09/060901-sewer-video.html
- OilJobFinder. "Oil Industry Jobs FAQ." OilJobFinder. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://www.oiljobfinder.com/oil_and_gas_jobs_faq.php
- Parsons, Jim. "Team 4: Garbage Workers Get Big OT, Go Home Early." ThePittsburghChannel.com. Aug. 7, 2003. (Aug. 21, 2008.) http://www.thepittsburghchannel.com/team4/2390330/detail.html
- Sahadi, Jeanne. "Six-figure jobs: Crime-scene cleaner." CNNMoney. April 15, 2005. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://money.cnn.com/2005/02/28/pf/sixfigs_eleven/index.htm
- Salary.com. "Salary Wizard." (Aug. 21, 2008) http://swz.salary.com/salarywizard/layoutscripts/swzl_salaryresults.asp?op=salswz _psr&hdOmniNarrowDesc=Construction%20and%20Installation&hdOmniTotalJobsFound= 3&pagefrom=selectjob&hdZipCode=&geometrocode=&hdLocationOption=0&countertype= 0&jobcounter=2&hdJobCode=SC16000004&hdJobTitle=Plumber%20I&hdJobCategory= MS01&hdNarrowDesc=Entry%20Level
- Salary.com. "Salary Wizard." Salary.com. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://swz.salary.com/salarywizard/layoutscripts/swzl_salaryresults.asp?hdKeyword= Gastroenterologist&rdbSearchByOption=0&hdOmniNarrowDesc=Healthcare%20--%20 Practitioners&hdZipCode=&hdStateMetro=&jobcounter=1&hdSortBy=0&hdJobCode= HC07000053&pagefrom=selectj
- SimplyHired.com. "Garbage Collector Salaries." SimplyHired.com. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://www.simplyhired.com/salaries-k-garbage-collector-jobs.html
- Speer, Jack. "Dirty Work: Sewer Cleaners." National Public Radio. Aug. 29, 2002. (Aug. 21, 2008) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1149124
- Weir, Bill. "The Dangerous Life of Working on an Oil Rig." ABC News. May 24, 2005. (Aug. 21, 2008). http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/PainAtThePump/Story?id=1997992&page=2