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Sydney Harbour Bridge

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The bridge-builders

During the eight years of its construction from 1924 to 1932, an estimated total of between 2,500–4,000 workers were employed in various aspects of its building. They included engineers, surveyors and architects, blacksmiths, boilermakers, carpenters and concreters, stonemasons, riggers, crane drivers, painters and day labourers.

The majority of the bridge workforce was Australian born but there was a mix of men from overseas with special skills, such as stonemasons from Scotland and Italy, riggers from the US, Britain and Europe and boilermakers from Ireland and England. Many of the bridge workers had been soldiers during World War I and the government gave them employment preference.

Nothing on the scale of the Harbour Bridge had been attempted before in Australia. It was an enormously challenging project, even by today’s standards, and the work involved was often difficult and extremely dangerous. There were many accidents and during the ten years of construction, sixteen workers lost their lives on the job. Today, rigorous standards of Occupational Health and Safety are compulsory requirements in all workplaces, but there were very few such standards in those days.

The images and eye-witness accounts that follow will give you an insight into the experiences of the men who worked on the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Their contribution is especially remembered in the exhibition and archives in the Pylon Lookout. A copy of the Honour Roll recording the workers and their work can be found on the Pylon Lookout website.

Occupational Health and Safety

image-bridege builders
© Henri Mallard
Construction of the Bridge
‘Where nerve is needed’ was this newspaper photograph’s caption in the Labor Daily of 9 February 1932. The work was so dangerous this photo became an advertisement for ‘nerve tonic’ But height was not the only danger the painters faced. The colour that we still call Bridge Grey was composed of pure white lead and linseed oil with some vegetable black. It stank and they often felt sick. Source: J. Holder & G. Harris, Sydney Harbour Bridge Workers: Honour Roll 1922–1932, Pylon Lookout, Sydney Harbour Bridge, 3rd Edition, 2007, p 12 at Pylon Honour Roll

It is very interesting to note the changes in work practices that have occurred in society since the late 1920s and the early 1930s. This is not only in terms of dress, –note workmen with collared shirt, bib–and–brace overalls, and a hat! But more particularly in terms of workplace safety, have a look at some of the images in the website and see if you can note down a list of occupational health and safety issues that are not tolerated in the workplace today.

'Riding the hook'. It was normal for the riggers (‘dogmen’)to ride the crane hook from the structure out into the air without any safety chain to prevent them falling.

Riveters commonly threw red hot rivets from the rivet furnace to their colleagues who caught them in a steel bucket, without eye protection. Riveting was carried out using large hydraulic rivet presses, or pneumatic hammers. Eye protection and ear protection were almost never used, even though one of the riveting team might be inside an enclosed, confined steel space.

Building trades people often walked on exposed beams without any form of safety harness or handrail. The beams could be as narrow as 300mm and many tens of metres in the air.

Scaffolding was not erected unless it was essential to gain access to hard-to-get-to work areas. Meals were often consumed by workers sitting on exposed beams high in the air. Workers were often buffeted by high winds and rain, which made the steel structure slippery and very dangerous. Considering the thousands of workers who worked on the bridge in these rather primitive working conditions, it is a miracle that only 16 lost their lives while working on the Bridge.

At the end of the working day, workmen had to scramble along the steel beams of the arch to points where they jumped into large ‘boxes’ suspended on a crane rope, and were lowered down into barges which took them to shore.

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