House debates

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Statements on Indulgence

West Gate Bridge

5:09 pm

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

The collapse of the West Gate Bridge is an event etched in the psyche of Melbourne's west and of the people who live in my electorate, where this accident occurred. At 11.50 am on 15 October 1970, a 114-millimetre gap between spans 10 and 11 of the West Gate Bridge gave way, and 2,000 tonnes of steel and concrete fell over 50 metres into the Yarra below. On that day, 35 West Gate Bridge workers, many of them migrants, never returned to their families. Another 18 men suffered life-changing injuries. The 35 men—fathers, husbands and sons—lost their lives falling with the bridge, being hit by metal and concrete shrapnel or by the fire. The collapse of the West Gate Bridge remains the worst industrial accident in Australian history. The almighty crash of 2,000 tonnes of steel and concrete plummeting into the ground below could be felt and heard as far as 20 kilometres away. That's basically the entire area of my electorate.

Vincent Rosewarne, at the time a 24-year-old crane operator, was close to the site on the day. He was one of the few workers who, incredibly, extraordinarily, rode the span to the ground and survived the impact. His story, told to journalists from his hospital bed, is simply amazing. Vincent recounted a big rumbling and everything flying towards the centre of the bridge. He grabbed a piece of steel and held on as he fell, with the bridge, 50 metres to the ground below. Witnesses saw him strike a wire mesh at ground level. Then he bounced back into the air, while steel crashed around him. Vincent suffered broken arms and a fractured leg.

George Bastecky, then a factory clerk, watched the bridge fall from his window overlooking the river. He recalls thinking that he would not have liked to have been working up on the bridge on such a windy day. He recalls seeing a crack appear in the bridge's support column. He saw the crack widen and then the column tumble into the Yarra. He also recalls seeing, almost in slow motion, the bridge section first dangling perilously and then collapsing in a heap of rubble, with a bang that shook him out of his chair.

About half a kilometre from the bridge, Ray Melroy remembers hearing a similar rumble. He then heard five explosions in succession and quickly rushed to the site of the collapsed bridge, as so many nearby did. At the site, Ray found death and destruction. He remembers finding men lying dead in the wreckage, smoke smouldering everywhere and dozens of men screaming. The sights, sounds and smells of the disaster and chaos stay with us and the residents of Melbourne's west forever. For the victims' families and survivors, the bridge collapse was a moment that changed their lives. For the rest of Australia, it was a catalyst for change in our nation's work health and safety laws and practices.

Noel Baker, a rigger during the construction of the bridge, has devoted his life to ensuring a West Gate accident never happens again. Noel recalls that 'in those days workers looked after their own safety'. He remembers that you did what you were told, management ruled with an iron fist and, if you thought something was unsafe, you kept it to yourself, because you had no say. A royal commission was established to investigate how this collapse could have happened. The commission's findings, together with longstanding union efforts, paved the way for strengthening occupational health and safety in Australian workplaces. In 1985 we passed our first Occupational Health and Safety Act. Australian workers now have elected health and safety representatives. Workers now have the right to talk about their safety and have their concerns addressed.

Australian workplaces are safer today than they were 48 years ago, but we still have work to do. In 2018 alone, 97 people have died at work—97 too many, 97 people who never returned to their partners, to their parents, to their children. The fight to improve workplace safety will not end. Australian unions were at the forefront of that fight when the bridge collapsed, and they continue to lead that fight today.

It is events like the West Gate Bridge collapse that drive the obsession with workplace safety that we see in so many trade unions in Australia. It's an insight into why Australian trade unionists are so passionate about these issues. They've seen the consequences, and they know how to fight to learn the lessons of the past. Noel Baker says that he hopes that no-one has to go through what he saw and experienced on that day 48 years ago. He says: 'At the end of the day, I'd hope that, when I leave the industry, it is a safe industry for anyone to come into. We'd like to see everyone go home.'

The West Gate Bridge is used by almost all of my constituents every day and is a Melbourne icon. The collapse is memorialised every year at the memorial at the base of the bridge by Australians who want us all to learn the lessons of this terrible tragedy. To my constituents across Melbourne's west: when you drive over the West Gate Bridge, when you cycle or walk under it or when you see the bridge from your homes or your places of work, I ask that you spare a thought for the workers who were killed that day and for the ongoing task of ensuring that all workers work in safe workplaces that enable them to return home to their families at the end of the day.


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