When darkness comes and pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down
Simon and Garfunkel
Bridges are a fascinating and dynamic piece of infrastructure that link communities and open regions to opportunity. A successful collaboration between its architects, developers, construction companies, subcontractors and the public sector transforms the way people live and work. Several notable iconic examples include the Sydney Harbour, Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges and the aesthetic Ponte Vecchio, which spans the Arno River in Florence and is the genesis of the economic concept of bankruptcy or broken table (bancorotto).
Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge may not hold such cultural significance although it carries almost 200,000 vehicles each day and provides a critical link between its central business district and the sprawling western suburbs. It also has the unenviable stigma as the scene of Australia’s worst industrial disaster, which involved the deaths of 35 workers when its span collapsed during construction five decades ago. Just before lunch hour on the 15th October 1970 the enormous structure began to creak and groan followed by a discomforting cacophony of screeching metal and pinging steel. A squall of dust flakes peeled from its weathered steel girders, which acquired a peculiar caerulean blue tinge under the mounting stress and metal fatigue. Almost 2000 tons of concrete and steel plummeted into the Yarra River and crushed several occupied construction sheds and crib rooms beneath the span. An ominous rumbling sound rolled across the estuarine mudflats followed by a foreboding wail of sirens.
A royal commission was established to investigate the incident and after six months its subsequent report condemned the design, construction method and in situ foolhardy attempts to rectify misalignment of the span. This involved the use of kentledge or ballast consisting of ten concrete blocks with a cumulative mass of 80 tons, which were strategically placed on the span reduce the gap. The imprudent and careless attempt to rectify the problem precipitated severe buckling and compromised its structural integrity.
Rectification of the buckling required the loosening of numerous steel bolts, which caused excessive slipping of several metal plates. Many remaining bolts became jammed and were subsequently tightened with an air gun until they snapped under tension, which released the broken stems. The radical and somewhat reckless solution created additional slipping and the buckling spread to upper outer panels.
Workers on the span experienced a gentle subsidence of the structure and the resident engineer arrived with an assistant to assess the situation and provide professional reassurance. This included a telephone call to the World Services and Constructions project office in Melbourne and their engineering representative was invited over to evaluate the deteriorating conditions. Minutes later the structure collapsed and plunged almost 50 metres into the Yarra estuary.
The explosion of gas, eruption of dust and crash of mangled metal was heard several kilometres away and rocked the foundations of nearby buildings. Survivors clambered from the murky and muddy waters and those that were able to talk and walk began searching and calling out for their colleagues. It was time to comfort the crippled, the wounded and the maimed and let the grim reaper count the dead. A memorial plaque was paid for and erected by bridge workers and unveiled on the 15th October 1978 in honour of their deceased colleagues who left for work one morning and never made it home.
The report directed extensive criticism towards the fractious, antagonistic and often hostile relationship between a didactic Freeman Fox and Partners and the Lower Yarra Crossing Authority and several principal contractors. This was compounded by revoking the World Services and Constructions steel bridge works contract and its subsequent reallocation to John Holland (Constructions). Indeed, relationships are the foundation of accomplishment and indeterminate roles and responsibilities had a significant adverse impact on industrial relations, especially on the west side of the project. The dreadful morale with ineffective leadership left cohorts of labourers wandering aimlessly across the project.
Almost 50 years later a tyranny of bureaucracy prevails across most major construction projects, which includes a kentledge of red tape supplemented by indoctrinating inductions and a proliferation of personal protective equipment in an otiose attempt to demonstrate due diligence.
The carousel of culpability with its brutal gotcha culture cannot secure the health and safety of people at work. This was demonstrated via another recent tragic incident on a Melbourne construction site. It has also created escalating psychosocial risk, which is exacerbated and conveniently disregarded by asinine shibboleths such as zero harm via its unhealthy and exasperating pursuit of perfection. This may be a significant contributory factor in the extraordinary suicide rate amongst young construction workers in Queensland…..Like a bridge over troubled water, I will ease your mind.
Despite October being designated as National Safe Work Month across Australia there is no official acknowledgement covering commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Australia’s worst industrial disaster on the Safe Work Australia, WorkSafe Victoria or the Australian Institute of Health and Safety websites. It claimed the lives of 35 construction workers and safety cannot be categorised as a profession until it begins listening and demonstrating some care and compassion. An independent community radio station 3CR in Fitzroy, Melbourne is commemorating the event with a special broadcast at 14:00 hours on 15th October 2020.
Never forgotten – Rest in peace
Royvin Barbuto Ross Bigmore Amadeo Boscolo
Bernard Butters Cyril Carmichael Peter Crossley
Peter Dawson Abraham Eden Anthony Falzon
Esequiel Fernandez Bernard Fitzsimmonds Victor Gerada
John Grist William Harburn Jack Hindshaw
Trevor Hunsdale John Little Charles Lund
Peter McGuire Ian Miller Jeremiah Murphy
Dennis O’Brien Joseph Ozelis Frank Piermarini
George Pram Lesley Scarlett Christopher Stewart
Alfonso Suarez William Tracy George Tsihilidis
Edgar Upsdell Robert West Robert Whelan
Patrick Woods Barry Wright