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 first suspension bridge supported by a tower in the ocean and surrounded by harsh weather and water conditions.
Before this project bridge construction workers, or “bridgemen,” had been considered reckless daredevils who worked without any safety precautions. They had to be fearless to climb the high steel and deal with the rugged weather and risky footing. The Golden Gate Bridge was built during the Great Depression – when 1 in 4 Americans was unemployed – and despite the risks, workers applied in droves.
Mary Currie, from the Golden Gate Bridge District, said getting a job on the bridge was like winning the lottery. “The men waiting to get a job, were hoping someone would hurt himself so they could replace him,” she said.
New and Better Safety Measures Enacted
Chief engineer and advocate for the bridge, Joseph Strauss, insisted on the use of the most extensive safety precautions in the history of bridge building. He demanded these include the latest safety innovations. The industry norm at that time was that one man would die during construction for every million dollars spent. This bridge cost $35 million – and with those numbers Strauss was committed to radically reduce that potential loss of life.
His safety innovations and equipment included a safety net underneath the entire bridge during roadway construction. Nineteen men fell into the net accidentally, yet none of them died. This group was famously called the ‘Halfway to Hell Club.’
“On the Golden Gate Bridge, we had the idea we could cheat death by providing every known safety device for workers,” Strauss wrote in 1937 for The Saturday Evening Post.
The Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t the first big job to require fall prevention and other safety equipment, but it was the first big job to fire employees who didn’t use the safety gear.
Strauss’ safety regulations were considered to be the most rigorous in the history of bridge-building. Here’s a sampling of the required safety equipment:
- Workers wore safety lines and Bullard hard hats. Manufacturer Edward Bullard created an industrial hard hat to wear on the job. He also designed a sand-blast respirator helmet that the workers wore. It prevented inhalation of lead-tainted fumes.
- Glare-free goggles helped visibility and prevented ‘snow blindness’ caused by the sun’s reflection off the water.
Special hand and face cream protected skin against the constant winds.
- Carefully formulated diets helped to fight dizziness during tower and roadway construction.
- Sauerkraut juice “cures” were supplied for a hangover.
- An on-site field hospital was provided.
- A safety net was strung underneath the entire length of the bridge.
Even with these precautions, 11 men died during construction – including 10 who lost their lives when a section of scaffold fell through the safety net. However, there were 28 worker fatalities during the construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Strauss’ safety regulations can be reasonably credited with saving many lives and setting a new worksite safety standard. 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. Since then over 2 billion cars have traveled over this bridge.