As Americans celebrate the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, many are reflecting back on sweeping changes in workplace safety since the 1930s. Workers who built the high-steel bridge understood a grim rule of thumb in those days: on average, one worker would die on the job for every million dollars spent on the construction project. Yet chief engineer Joseph Strauss wanted his project to be the exception. Strauss invested hundreds of thousands of Depression-era dollars to improve safety standards for his workers.
Resident engineers and supervisors ensured that hard hats were worn at all times, since most workers were injured not by falling, but rather by errant flying objects. Alcohol and “clowning” – performing stunts at any height – was automatic grounds for termination. But the most innovative safety feature at the Golden Gate site was yet to come.
A Safety Net
In 1936, Strauss introduced a novel safety feature: a vast circus net that was strung beneath the bridge. The safety net extended 10 feet beyond the width of the bridge and 15 feet further than the roadway’s length. This feature gave workers an heightened sense of security and allowed them to move more freely — and quickly — across the slippery steel. “There’s no doubt the work went faster because of the net,” said Lefty Underkoffler, a Golden Gate bridgeman. Some workers used the net for thrills, and had to be threatened with dismissal to prevent them from diving into it for amusement.
The net was deemed a huge success, and soon patented by the manufacturer, J. L. Stuart Company. Yet on February 16, 1937, workers learned that it was not a fail-safe device. A team of eleven men were working on a platform that suddenly collapsed; the five-ton structure hung swaying from the bridge, with the panicked workers clinging to it or falling to the water hundreds of feet below. One worker lunged and grabbed onto a bridge beam, where he dangled until he was rescued.
When the whole mechanism collapsed into the net moments later, bystanders described the sound of the net tearing as something like “the crack of a machine gun” or “the rip of a picket fence splintering.” The workers, the platform, and the net plummeted 200 feet into the ocean below.
Of the twelve men who hit the water, only two survived. One of them was the foreman of the crew, Slim Lambert. He recounted the double injury incurred during the incident: “As I was falling, a piece of lumber fell on my head. I was almost unconscious. Then the icy water of the channel brought me to.” Fortunately, the twenty-six year old was a strong swimmer. He desperately wrestled himself free from the tangles of the net under water. Lambert sustained a broken shoulder, and fractures several ribs and neck vertebrae, but lived to tell the story. In this single catastrophe, the project’s near-perfect safety record came to an end.
Along with celebrating this breathtaking engineering feat and great American landmark, we also remember those workers who died or were injured during its construction. Emery Reddy represents workers with workers compensation and L&I claims If you have been injured on the job, suffered a third-party injury, need representation during your Independent Medical Exam, or want to appeal a appeal a denied L&I claim, contact an experienced workers compensation lawyer at Emery Reddy today.