Bridge collapse sparks safety reforms

The West Gate Bridge collapse on 15 October 1970 was the catalyst for landmark reforms in Victorian workplace health and safety practices.

West Gate Bridge

A six-month Royal Commission into the collapse found errors in structural design and methods of construction were to blame.

The collapse killed 35 workers and has the unenviable title of Australia’s worst industrial accident. 

Since then, the issue of safety in the workplace has become a bigger consideration and area of focus across worksites.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act was introduced in Victoria in 1985. For the first time, the law enshrined the health and safety of people at work and penalised employers who breached the legislation.

“A big part of this was the right to stop work when a situation or site is unsafe,” Department of Transport (DoT) Senior Manager, Safety Operations, Leigh Sporle said.  

“Designers must also provide information on how they have designed a structure to be without risk to health and safety to anyone who is issued with the design.”

Leigh said putting safety at the start of the work process was another significant change from the 1970s.

“Use of Job Safety Analysis and Safe Work Method Statements in the planning of a task on site allows potential hazards to be identified and allows workers to do the job in the safest way,” he said.

Leigh said temporary traffic management created safer work areas for construction, maintenance and other activities on or near a road. 

“It is most commonly achieved through use of temporary traffic control devices, which include warning and speed reduction signs, electronic variable message signs, safety barriers or other devices installed with the authorisation of the relevant road authority for employees working on or near roadways and the safety of the public.”

West Gate Bridge

DoT’s Principal Engineer, Structures (Roads), Dimi Polymenakos was Project Manager Infrastructure on the West Gate Bridge from 2008 to 2012 and Manager, West Gate Bridge from 2012 to 2018.

Dimi said improvements in design technology, construction materials, communication technologies, information-sharing and work safety practices had greatly minimised the risks of workplace accidents.

“With the availability of technology, we can undertake more detail assessments of structures and have a better understanding how these structures will perform,” he said.

“The time taken to assess structures has greatly reduced and hence various options can be assessed in a short period of time and optimum solutions adopted.

“We also have a better understanding of how materials perform and hence we can make more informed decisions.”

Dimi said safety was critical during the design and delivery of any project from start to finish.

“The construction methodologies procedures that we now produce prior to undertaking any works are reviewed by a number of people and potential safety issues are identified and mitigation measures are implemented to reduce the identified risks,” he said. 

“The support machinery available to the construction teams is now of a much better standard, safer to operate and do the dangerous work that once workers did.

“As with everything, as time progresses people learn more and more and identify better and safer ways in undertaking activities, hence reducing the risk to people.”

Read more about the West Gate Bridge tragedy.

- Andrew Bartram