Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the collapse of the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne. Thirty-five people were killed when one of the box-girder spans collapsed while the bridge was under construction.
The West Gate Bridge workers were a highly unionised workforce. Safety concerns over the construction method of the bridge, and disputes over worker's pay and conditions, meant the project would be plagued with industrial issues. When a box-girder bridge in Wales, conceived by the same designers as the West Gate Bridge, collapsed in June 1970, the West Gate Bridge workers refused to go back to work. Alarmed by the similarities in the way the two bridges were being constructed, the workers were eventually reassured that the West Gate Bridge was safe, and returned to work.
What led to the bridge collapsing was a series of engineering failures, safety neglect and some bad luck. As two spans of the bridge met, one side was higher than the other. They tried to fix it by adding weight ot the higher side, and remove some bolts to ease the stress, so the two parts of the bridge could meet. This process caused a buckle in the structure, and at 11.50 am on the 15th October 1970, the bridge collapsed, killing thirty-five people and injuring many more.
The Royal Commission into the disaster was scathing of the design and the methods used to build the bridge. It became a turning point for the improvement of workplace health and safety in Victoria.
Construction of the West Gate Bridge recommenced in 1972 and was finally completed in 1978. Today the bridge connects Melbourne’s affluent eastern suburbs with its working-class west.
To this day, it remains Australia's worst construction industry disaster.