West Gate Bridge 1970s tragedy a reminder how far workplace safety has come, but work still to do

16/10/2018

Geelong Advertiser opinion piece by principal lawyer Rachel Schutze.

I drive over the West Gate Bridge at least twice a week.

For me, it is the gateway to work and home in Geelong.

As I reach its summit about 7am it is the perfect vantage point to see if there are any boats docked at Port Melbourne.

As I look from the bay, back toward the city itself, I continuously marvel at the engineering feats that have created Melbourne’s beautiful skyscraper skyline.

On the way back, crossing the West Gate Bridge with the skyscrapers behind me I look forward to home.

Three children desperate to tell me about their day, a hug from my husband and two hounds announcing my arrival as they hear the gate latch go. Magic.

For people of my generation and the generations that follow, that is, what I suspect that bridge represents.

However for those in the generations before me, they will also vividly remember the day the partially completed West Gate Bridge collapsed — October 15, 1970.

It was a catastrophe. About 11.50am, a large span of the bridge, weighing some 2000 tonnes, collapsed and plummeted 50 metres.

A Royal Commission into the tragedy took six months, and heard two million words of evidence.

The conclusion of the Royal Commission was that errors in structural design and methods of construction particularly of the steel spans, were to blame.

The Royal Commission concluded that “the disaster which occurred ... and the tragedy of the 35 deaths was utterly unnecessary”.

The bridge collapse still has the unenviable title of being Australia’s worst industrial accident, with 35 construction workers killed. That is, 35 families who had someone leave that morning and not return that afternoon.

Many of the men who were killed were sitting in the lunch huts when the partially completed bridge collapsed. Others were killed while working on the part that fell, others still were killed by falling debris.

In 1970 few homes had dual income earners so for most of those homes the family member who didn’t return was likely to be the sole income earner.

As we approach 50 years since the accident, it still serves as a stark reminder of how dangerous going to work can be, particularly for those on the tools in construction.

Thankfully, over the years, the issue of safety in the workplace has become much more of a consideration and area of focus across worksites.

For example, in 1985 the former Cain Labor Government introduced the Occupational Health and Safety Act in Victoria.

For the first time, the law enshrined the health and safety of people at work and provided punishments for employers who breached the legislation.

Over many years of assisting the dependents of those who have lost their lives at work to access compensation through the WorkCover scheme, I have fortunately seen many improvements in how we are creating better protections for workers, including the right to stop work when a situation or site is unsafe.

However, one of the most remarkable shifts has come by placing safety at the start of the work process not at the end.

The use of Job Safety Analysis in the planning of a task on site allows potential hazards to be identified and allows workers to do the job in the safest way.

A major part of the lobbying, awareness campaigns, education and training that allows workers to come home safe each night is due to the dogged determination of unions.

It is their loud voice on behalf of and for the benefit of workers that make sure everyone that clocks on, clocks off and gets home.

The terrible reality is that we still haven’t achieved zero deaths at work. WorkSafe’s figures report 18 workplace fatalities in our state this year. The CFMEU advise that seven of those deaths are workers in construction.

Next time you cross the West Gate Bridge and are travelling home to those you love, take a moment to reflect on how important safety in the workplace is and what the absence of safety means for those families left without their loved one.

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