In an interview aired yesterday on NPR’s “Here and Now,” construction- and iron-workers had to remind listeners of a simple fact that seems obvious to anyone in their line of work: nothing is “given” about our built environment. Every constructed space we inhabit and use on daily basis has been built by the hands of workers who understand the craft, labor, and effort it takes to raise cities, bridges, roads and buildings. They look on these spaces with great pride, but also with awareness that thousands of workers in their sector are injured, disabled and even killed each year to maintain a national infrastructure many of us take for granted. The full piece can be heard online: “Photos Capture 15 Years Of Work On San Francisco-Oakland Bridge.”
This discussion emerged in media coverage of the opening California’s new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which hosted its first rush hour commuters on Labor Day following 11 years of construction and a $6.4 billion investment. Holding a welding torch – perhaps as a nod to the workers who built the bridge, — Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom cut the chain while the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland applauded. Yet at no point during the festivities were those workers directed mentioned or recognized.
The 2.2-mile span replaced the original bridge damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Miraculously, only a single fatality occurred on the bridge when a major section collapsed during the quake, crushing cars and trapping passengers under the rubble. The new structure is designed to withstand the largest earthquake seismologists predict could occur in the area over a 1,500-year period. Construction workers and workers comp lawyers point out that, in light of this impressive feat, perhaps the “ribbon cutting” ceremony could have given more recognition to those builders and engineers, and less to the politicians who constantly defunded and stalled the project along with way.
Yet photographer Joe Blum – one of the individuals interviewed on the “Here and Now” segment, decided to put these workers front and center. Blum – a retired boilermaker and welder – has been with the Bay Bridge project since the beginning, documenting the progress of construction crews for 15 years. His images are breathtaking, showing workers suspended from frightening towers, balancing across catwalks, and hanging from cables. The full slideshow can be view here.
Ironworkers installing NW chimney on top of the tower, 2011.
Despite the dangers of the project, no workers were killed during construction. This marks significant historical progress when compared to the Golden Gate Bridge (completed in 1933), which involved scores of worker fatalities and an uncounted number of workplace injuries. Of course that massive engineering feat was completed before the advent of today’s workplace safety regulations – and certainly long before anyone ever heard of workers compensation law firms or hired a worker comp lawyer.
The entire San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge closed in the days leading up to Monday’s ceremony, allowing crews to wrap up the final work. And for those paying careful attention, construction workers could still be seen striping, posting signs and placing roadway markers in the background as the Lieutenant Governor made his speech about the historic re-opening of the bridge.
Piledrivers welding studs on E2 foundation, 2007