David Jamieson

David Jamieson

How the circus helped save lives on the Golden Gate Bridge

Construction on the Golden Gate Bridge began in 1933, at the cost of $35 Million dollars, which in today’s money is over $500 million. This project stands out for many reasons. Firstly, and take note Project Managers, because it came in under budget. Secondly, the work of its Chief Engineer, Joseph Strauss.

At that time, the standard for safety was that for every $1 million spent, you should expect one fatality. So, if Joseph only killed 34 people on his project, it would be deemed a success from a safety point of view.

Joseph had other ideas and decided not to accept the current standard. He wanted his project to be the exception. Despite there still being depression and tight purse strings, he invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in improving safety standards.

This was one of the first projects of its kind to introduce compulsory use of hardhats. Given that many injuries were sustained by falling objects, this drastically improved the project’s safety record. Site discipline was strictly enforced. Use of alcohol on site or being caught carrying out unsafe practices – again common back then – were grounds for automatic termination.

But the most innovative safety feature at the Golden Gate site was yet to come.

After visiting the local circus, Joseph Strauss had his eureka moment. An acrobat fell during a routine and was caught in a safety net. No such practice existed in the construction industry, so he took the circus nets and installed them beneath the bridge and an extra ten feet beyond the edge.

The nets were a success, soon patented by the company and used throughout construction projects even to this day, almost 90 years later.

There were, however, fatalities on this project. Near the end of the project, a five-ton platform collapsed and fell onto a net, designed only to take the weight of people, not of heavy steel. 10 people died that day, ending the project’s near perfect safety record. Outside of this incident, there was only one other death on the four-year project. The nets directly saved 19 lives throughout the project. That’s a Step Change in Safety.

Fortunately, we are working at a time where there are far higher safety standards, but at a time not without incident. Today when we participate in Risk Assessment exercises, let’s all focus and use this time to its best effect and really look for the risks, issues and concerns that could cause or contribute to a major accident. Let’s ensure that we have put everything in place to prevent any incident from taking place or controlling its consequences if it does. Like Joseph Strauss, we should always be seeking to raise the bar and making sure that everyone makes it home safely.

You never know, you may even end up cast as a bronze statue for your efforts. 

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