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Building the Story Bridge: How Workplace Safety Has Moved On

Katherine McCallum
Mar 9, 2024
5
min read
Construction workers practising workplace safety in Australia

Building the Story Bridge: How Workplace Safety Has Moved On

The Story Bridge in Brisbane was constructed across the river from May 1935 until its completion in July 1940. The 7th largest bridge in the world at the time of building, with a heigh of 74 metres and a length of just over 1000 metres, it required time and dedication not only from architects and overseers of the project, but the 400 men tasked to build it, too. 

So, how does the construction of the Story Bridge hold up to working practices in the construction industry today?

How workplace safety has evolved since the Story Bridge 

Despite the Story Bridge being one of the most ambitious and groundbreaking constructions in Queensland in the early 20th century, the practices used to build it would certainly turn heads and be cause for legal and union concerns today.

Working under pressure

Then

This began with the building of the foundations, which followed strategies that had been innovated from the construction of the Grey St Bridge in 1932, 8 years prior to the Story Bridge. Skilled divers were required to work at depths of up to 40 metres to build them, experiencing 4 times the pressure than if they were on dry land. 

Although there were airlocks and decompression chambers for these workers, they would need to spend 2 hours within them to avoid ending up with the bends, a condition which if not treated quickly can prove fatal. That being said, 65 cases of the bends were recorded during the construction of the Story Bridge’s foundations, which were thankfully treated at an on-site hospital set up to accommodate this.

Now

Today, workers who undertake diving as part of their job roles have a dedicated code of practice, put into place in 2005. As part of this, they need to be able to demonstrate competence and medical fitness to be able to dive. Additionally, employers need to make sure thorough risk assessments are put in place and carried out regularly. 

Working Hours

Then

Schedules for workers on the Story Bridge were unforgiving and grueling. Most workers did a 48-hour week spread across 6 days, leaving them only one day off to recover. Accounts from the time include one from a worker named Harry, who couldn’t get the day off for his own wedding, and had to work a night shift after tying the knot!

Despite this, most workers did not complain and would not have passed up the work offered by the bridge’s construction. There were over 400 workers over the course of the build, many of whom benefited from the steady employment the project offered following the Great Depression. With businesses slowly recovering, the prospect of such work was incredibly welcome to the people of Queensland and Brisbane.

Now

The recommended guidelines for construction workers in the modern day is 36 hours per week, spread across 5 days. Any time past this is considered overtime and needs to be pre-approved and compensated for accordingly. By limiting hours and having 2 full rest days helps to prevent workers from getting burnt out or fatigued, which could lead to carelessness and accidents on the work site.

Health and Safety

Then

Even though they were working at height, and with heavy and potentially dangerous machinery, very little regard was given to protective equipment for the workers on the Story Bridge. They had no hard hats, no eye protection, no steel-toed work boots, and no ear protection against the loud nature of the construction work. 

Practices were also allowed to occur which would seem unthinkable today. Workers would throw hot rivets up to colleagues to catch in metal buckets as they worked, which could have caused burns or even a serious accident should they not be successfully caught.

Thankfully, the workers’ own vigilance and rapport with each other helped to keep them safe. Without a health and safety officer, they had to look out for the risks themselves and protect others from harm.

Now

Nowadays, construction projects, especially ones as large as the Story Bridge was, are heavily scrutinised to make sure health and safety practices are maintained and in force at all times. Most sites will have a dedicated health and safety officer appointed to them, whose job is to make sure that the rules and regulations are being complied to. That being said, if workers feel that conditions are unsafe, they should still be able to look out for each other, but can also let the health and safety officer or a supervisor know so the issue can be rectified quickly.  

Worker fatalities

Then

During the building of the Story Bridge, 4 people lost their lives. One individual was not employed on the project, but instead was a bystander who decided to climb the bridge to get a better look, tragically losing his footing and falling into the river below. 

The 3 workers who died included Hans James Zimmerman on the 22nd of November 1937. He slipped, falling 23 metres to the ground below. 

2 years later on the 7th February 1939, Alfred William Jackson fell from the bridge into the river. Although he survived the fall and was pulled from the water by fellow workers, he sadly died 4 hours later, never regaining consciousness after he hit the water. 

The third and final worker to lose their life was Arthur McKay Wharton on the 6th December 1939. He was hit by a piece of loose equipment on a nerve, causing him to faint and fall to his death. Ironically, Wharton had saved another worker from the same fate just 18 months earlier. 

Now

Surprisingly, the number of fatalities over the 5 years of the construction of the Story Bridge is incredibly low. However, we do not know exactly how many people were injured during this time, or suffered lifelong complications from working at the site. 

In 2022, 4 workers lost their lives in construction related incidents in Queensland. Although this number might seem high compared to the 4 lives lost at the Story Bridge, you have to remember that it was only one project in Brisbane as opposed to multitudes of them across the entire state. 

Legacy of the bridge

Today, the Story Bridge is one of the most iconic structures in Brisbane, with over 30 million cars making the crossing each year. Lit up at night with mesmerising light displays, it stands as a testament to the city's growth and development even in hard times. 

The Story Bridge has been designated as a historic monument by the Queensland Heritage Act, meaning it will be protected and preserved for many years to come. 

The Story Bridge celebrates its 85th anniversary next year in 2025.

If you are working on a site that has practices as dodgy as those on the Story Bridge, get in touch with Smith’s Lawyers to understand the laws that protect you and your rights as a worker.

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