“Cheating Death”: Worker Safety During Construction

The era of reckless daredevilry among “bridgemen” came to an end with the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, as Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss insisted on a rigid safety code, supported by the latest safety innovations.

Despite the high winds, churning currents, and towering heights that challenged the work, Strauss was determined to buck the industry’s deadly average of one fatality per million dollars spent on a construction project.

“On the Golden Gate Bridge, we had the idea we could cheat death by providing every known safety device for workers,” he wrote in 1937 for The Saturday Evening Post. “To the annoyance of the daredevils who loved to stunt at the end of the cables, far out in space, we fired any man we caught stunting on the job.

According to Stephen Cassady’s Spanning the Gate (pg 104), “The Golden Gate was not the first big job to feature hard hats and safety lines as some have claimed. But it was the first to enforce their use with the threat of dismissal.”

In addition to wearing safety lines, workers benefited from features such as:

  1. “Bullard” hard hats, mining helmets specially modified by Edward W. Bullard, a local safety equipment manufacturer
  1. Respirator masks for the riveters, to prevent inhalation of lead-tainted fumes created when the hot rivets struck the lead paint of the towers
  1. Glare-free goggles to enhance visibility and ward off “snowblindness” caused by the sun reflecting off the water
  1. Special hand and face cream to protect against strafing winds
  1. Carefully formulated diets to help fight dizziness during the vertiginous tower and roadway construction
  1. Sauerkraut juice “cures” for any men suffering from hangovers
  1. On-site field hospital, staffed by doctors, set up near the wharf at Fort Point
  1. A safety net, suspended under the “floor” of the Bridge during the construction of the roadway structure (the stiffening truss). It was suspended along the entire length of the span from pylon to pylon; the $130,000 net—“made of manila rope, 3/8 in. diameter and 6 in. square mesh”—extended ten feet outside the trusses on both sides and gave workers the confidence to work more quickly

Although the net did save 19 men (the “Halfway-to-Hell Club”), and Strauss’ safety regulations were considered to be the most rigorous in the history of bridge-building, tragedy still struck the project.

The first fatality was Kermit Moore on October 21, 1936. And on February 17, 1937, 12 men fell to the water after a section of scaffold toppled through the safety net. Two survived, but 10 of them— O.A. Anderson, Chris Anderson, William Bass, Orrill Desper, Fred Dümmatzen, Terence Hallinan, Eldridge Hillen, Charles Lindros, Jack Norman, and Louis Russell—lost their lives.