How the Golden Gate Bridge Changed Safety Standards
Derek Tokarz • Certified in Safety Management Group's Training in Fall Protection
If there’s one construction job that set the modern standards for work site safety precautions, it is the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. When construction on this bridge began in 1933, it was the earliest suspension bridge supported by a tower in the ocean and surrounded by harsh weather and water conditions.
Before this project, bridge construction workers, also known as “bridgemen”, were considered reckless daredevils who worked without safety precautions. They had to be fearless to climb the high steel and deal with the rugged weather and treacherous footing. The Golden Gate Bridge was built during the Great Depression when nearly 24.9% of the workforce was unemployed. This meant that one in four Americans were without jobs, so workers applied in droves despite the risks.
Safety was a priority during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the safety measures taken during construction helped change the way safety on construction sites was approached.
Safety Measures Before the Golden Gate Bridge
There were very few safety measures for construction workers, especially those working at height, before the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. These safety measures were seldom strictly enforced, resulting in a dangerous fatality standard for the construction industry. During the 1930s, construction projects were expected to have one fatality for every million dollars spent on a project.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was only created in 1970 to develop and enforce safety standards and guidelines in various industries across the U.S. Even before the development of OSHA, safety measures and personal protective equipment were constantly evolving, and the Golden Gate Bridge highlighted some of these developments.
New and Improved Safety Measures
Joseph Strauss was the Chief Engineer for the Golden Gate Bridge. He insisted on using the most extensive safety precautions in the history of bridge building, including the newest safety measures of the the time. The bridge cost $35 million, and with the industry norm being one death per million spent on a project, Strauss was committed to reducing the potential loss of life. Strauss stated in an article for the Saturday Evening Post in 1937 that he wanted to “cheat death” by using every known safety device.
During roadway construction, his safety innovations and equipment included a safety net underneath the entire bridge. While the Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t the first major construction job to require fall prevention and other safety measures, it was the first project to enforce them by threatening workers with dismissals.
Strauss’ safety regulations were considered the most rigorous in the history of bridge-building at the time. Some of the safety measures Strauss enforced included:
Hard hats: Workers wore Bullard hard hats, modified from mining hard hats.
Respirator helmets: Edward W. Bullard, the creator of Bullard hard hats, designed a basic sand-blast respirator helmet for the workers to wear to prevent inhaling harmful fumes.
Safety lines: Most workers used safety lines to prevent them from falling.
Safety net: The most significant safety precaution was the safety net placed beneath the entire bridge. It was made from manila rope and square mesh and extended 10 feet from the trusses on both sides.
Eye protection: Glare-resistant goggles improved visibility and helped prevent “snowblindness” from the sun’s reflection off the water.
Cream: To protect against the constant harsh winds, workers were given special hand and face creams.
Medical care: An on-site hospital was set up nearby to provide prompt medical attention.
All of these precautions resulted in a low mortality rate for the project. Nineteen men fell into the net accidentally, yet none of them died. This group was famously called the “Halfway to Hell Club.” 11 workers died during construction. 10 workers lost their lives when a scaffold section fell in 1937 and broke the safety net, and one worker fell off the bridge during construction. Strauss’ safety precautions are often attributed to saving many lives and helping set new worksite safety standards. He proved to the world that safety gear saves lives.
The Golden Gate Bridge opened for traffic on May 27, 1937. That day, nearly 200,000 people crossed what was then the longest suspension bridge in the world. Today, almost 39 million vehicles cross the bridge every year.
Put Safety First With Kattsafe
The safety measures used by Strauss helped change how safety is viewed, especially when working at heights. Today, OSHA standards ensure that workers in all industries are safe while on the job.
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