Dying to Work — Part 1

The triangles proved to be the tipping point. 

I’m a sucker for the three-sided shapes because I made a good living for a number of years by incorporating their trigonometric properties into calculations for bending conduit and laying out work on slabs and racks of pipe.

Prior to the start of the August retiree luncheon in my union hall, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)—Local 6, in San Francisco—my friend, Derek, was in the process of setting up a display on a table below the speaker’s podium. He always has some ephemera from our collective past mixed in with items of information pertaining to current (no pun intended) events of local, national, and international scope to pique our interest and inspire conversations.

The caution-yellow colored equilateral triangles caught my eye from across the room and I decided to see what they were about. The numbers 2375—the Piledriver’s Local Union—are positioned above the word SAFETY, which dominates the middle of the sticker. The letters of the word are arranged side-by-side and rise and fall to approximate the shape of a pentagon. Underneath, along the base of the triangle, it reads, “It’s everyone’s responsibility.”

The kicker for me are the sentences on each of the top sides of the triangle. Starting on the left side from the base to the apex—and then down the next side to the base—it reads, “We just come to work. We don’t come to die.”

We just come to work.

We don’t come to die.

It seems like a no-brainer, right? 

Who in their right mind goes to work to die?

I spent over 55 years in and around construction jobs, men, and materials. I have been around people who have suffered serious injuries on the job. I have had a few of those myself and can honestly say that the It-won’t-happen-to-me Principle is alive and well and a firm foundation for any of us who take on a dangerous job.

Why would someone choose to do something that could potentially end their life in a split second? 

Granted, somebody has to do it, but why any person in particular? 

Is it money, or lack of it? 

There are no greater motivating factors for a working man, or woman, than having a mortgage; or children to feed, house and clothe; or vehicle payments; or healthcare expenses; or putting money into a savings account; or having some extra funds for a vacation.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that I have had my share of jobs that I didn’t like. Jobs that I took because I needed the money and something better was bound to come along eventually.

We just come to work.

I have been living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 37 years and am honored to be a small part of the rich history of its Labor Movement. Over the years I have had the pleasure of working on some truly memorable jobs with some extraordinarily talented people.

The most amazing job that I had was working rotating shifts as an electrician on the Golden Gate Bridge. It is more than just a workplace for those of us with a sense of history. It is a time capsule of the people who worked there and of engineering feats that were put to the test as never before at the time it was built in the 1930s. 

We don’t come to die.

People died building the Golden Gate Bridge. The official tally is 11 men, although 3 other men died under debatable circumstances that are not listed as GGB-related. 

“These are fine new pants to take a bath in,” kidded Jack Norman, when he came to the breakfast table this morning at his boarding house…

Ten men died in a single mishap a mere two and a half months before it opened when a work scaffold under the bridge broke loose and took 12 men with it into the safety net below. The first-of-its-kind net wasn’t designed to support the weight of the 5-ton stripping platform and it ripped away and fell 240 feet into the into the 7 mph outgoing waters of the Golden Gate Strait; a tangled mass of men, mesh, metal, and wood.

Two men survived the ordeal.

Eight of ten bodies were never recovered.

We just come to work.

A memorial plaque is mounted on a concrete bulkhead at the entrance to the west sidewalk on the south end of the bridge, a grim reminder of the true cost of a $35,000,000 engineering masterpiece.

I passed that plaque every time that I went out on the west sidewalk.

My definition of a successful day was whenever I passed that plaque in my car on my way home. 

We don’t come to die.

Nobody comes to work to die. 

Death is something that will happen to the “other guy”, if at all.

A few months before I retired an employee for a contractor fell off a ladder on the outside of the Powerhouse at the bridge and died. 

He fell off a ladder that we use every week.

Once a week the graveyard electrician runs a half-hour test of the offline generator at 5:00 AM. 15 to 20 minutes into the test they have to climb up that same ladder in the dark and inspect the roof seals around the exhaust pipe and check the operation of the cooling radiator, looking for leaks and signs of corrosion in particular.

I was off-shift when the fatality occurred. One of my co-workers heard a noise and found the body. 

We just come to work.

The accident was a sobering reminder that bad things can happen to good people in the blink of an eye.

We don’t come to die.

Why did it happen to him and not to me at some point in the pre-dawn hours?

Does that mean that I am a better worker than him? 

Or, am I just lucky?

There’s an old saying that “if you hang around a barbershop long enough, you will get a haircut.” My experience has been that if you choose to work in dangerous environments, the possibility of having an accident becomes a certainty over time.

For many years the Rule of Thumb for big construction jobs was that one life would be lost for every million dollars spent.

In the coming weeks I will be discussing the challenge of building two bridges in the Bay Area—the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate—along with their associated infrastructure. Measured in the sum of dollars and lives, the true cost of both projects is a lesson for us all on this day set aside to honor Labor.

Both bridges broke ground in 1933 and had a combined expenditure of approximately $100,000,000 (over $2 bn in today’s money) and 41 lost lives. In this case, the Rule of Thumb for money vs lives turned out to be less than half of what was expected.

The completion of the two bridges profoundly effected the transportation of goods and people—commerce in general—in the Bay Area. 

Today we can easily look back and say that it was time and money well spent. It is only when we look deeper that we realize that there are a number of families, friends, and co-workers who might question that assumption.

Safety — It’s everyone’s responsibility.

It is Labor Day here in the United States and my wish for all of you who are employed is simple: Be safe. Not just tomorrow, but every day at home and at work.

In the words of Samuel Gompers: “Labor Day differs in every essential from other holidays of the year in any country. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflict and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation.”



To be continued

  8 comments for “Dying to Work — Part 1

  1. September 14, 2018 at 5:53 PM

    Thank you for this sobering reminder, Allan. I look forward to reading the next installments.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. September 3, 2018 at 4:49 PM

    Powerful phrase.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. September 3, 2018 at 12:22 PM

    Somber but illuminating, Allan.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. September 3, 2018 at 10:58 AM

    A fascinating tribute Allan. One might think that taking extra care would prevent accidents but the story of the scaffolding and safety net disproves the theory. You’ve made Labor Day come alive with this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • September 3, 2018 at 11:20 AM

      Thanks, Tina. Job Safety is no place for “close enough”. Enjoy your day.


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