Any large civil engineering project brings with it the potential of death and injury. Laws relating to occupational health and safety have been significantly improved in recent years: in the 1920s and 30s there were few requirements for the mandatory provision of safe workplaces and protective equipment.
With several thousand people working on the Sydney Harbour Bridge under the conditions of the day — some on the bridge, many in the workshops and at the stone quarry at Moruya on the south coast of NSW — it is remarkable that more deaths didn’t occur.
Sixteen people died during the whole period of the construction of the bridge and its approaches. Thirteen were Dorman, Long & Co. Ltd. employees, and three were Public Works Department employees. Of these, two fatalities occurred at the quarry and three on the bridge itself, with the others on the approach structures or in the workshops. This is a surprisingly small number when compared with present-day construction statistics, and considering that no safety ropes were provided, and personal protection equipment such as safety glasses, harnesses and hearing protection were apparently little used.
In many places protective gloves were not used, even by the men handling red-hot rivets. Some men involved in riveting were required to climb inside the chord structures to support the rivet while the riveter on the outside formed the rivet head using a pneumatic riveting gun. In many cases workers did not wear hearing protection under these circumstances.
All steelwork for the arch, hangers and deck had to be lifted from barges on the harbour up to the appropriate assembly location. In this work it was not uncommon for the dogman to ‘ride the hook’ as the crane hook was lowered to the barge, and to stay with the load as it was raised to the bridge. Communication between the dogman and the crane driver was by standard hand and whistle signals, as it still is today.
Victor Kelly was probably the luckiest man to survive while working on the bridge. He recounts the circumstances:
‘… I am often working near the edge of the bridge and on many occasions I have thought to myself “Now,if you ever fall, Roy, you had better make sure that you hit the water feet first or head first.” So, when I slipped and fell today, I concentrated on saving my life. That is all that I thought about. It was the only thing in my mind; the desire to live. I knew that I was very near death. I hit the water. I went under. There was a roar of water in my ears. My lungs felt as though they would burst. Then I came to the surface. I was alive, marvellously alive.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 24 October 1930, cited in Mackaness, 2006, p 220).
Victor had slipped and fallen about 170 ft (nearly 52 m) the day before.