In an era when one death per million dollars spent on bridge construction was axiomatic, chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge Joseph Strauss decided his project would be different. He refused to accept the conventional wisdom that worker deaths were just a normal cost of doing business and introduced a series of safety innovations – you can see an overview in this brief video clip:
More on his commitment to safety during construction is presented in the PBS American Experience documentary “Golden Gate Bridge.” Perhaps the innovation that was most touted was the introduction of a safety net, “… similar to a circus net — suspended under the bridge. The safety net extended ten feet wider than the bridge’s width and fifteen feet further than the roadway’s length.” While there was one deadly accident when a scaffold platform fell and broke through the net resulting in 10 fatalities, there is no doubt the net saved many other lives. Nineteen survivors whose falls were stopped by the net became de facto members of “The Halfway to Hell Club.”
Strauss employed many other fascinating safety innovations, ranging from sauerkraut juice “cures” for men suffering from hangovers to special hand and face cream to protect against winds. But next to safety nets, the other noteworthy safety practice that emerged during the bridge’s construction was the reliance on hard hats. The hard hats of the era were called “hard-boiled hats,” and were made of leather and canvas. You can read more about the history of the hard hat at the Bullard site. Edward W. Bullard first introduced the hats in 1919, based on a doughboy hat he had worn in WWI. His hats were originally created to protect miners. The Bullard history says:
America’s first designated “Hard Hat Area” was set up at the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge construction site. “The project’s chief engineer, Joseph B. Strauss, shared a vision with my grandfather that the workplace could be a safer environment for the worker. One problem the bridge project faced was falling rivets, which could cause serious injury,” said Bullard. “My grandfather transformed the mining helmet into a durable industrial hard hat.”
We would be remiss if we did not note that the status of being “the first official hard-hat area” is under some dispute – some contest that the Hoover Dam construction was the first work site to mandate hard hats:
The Bullard Company asserts that the first official “Hard Hat Area” was the Golden Gate Bridge project in San Francisco. The project’s chief engineer, Joseph B. Strauss, beginning on January 5, 1933, directed all the workers to wear hard hats to protect themselves from falling rivets and other materials. However, the Six Companies constructing Hoover Dam first required all its workers to wear hard hats by November 1931.
Here’s a picture of the vintage “Bollard hard boiled hats” of the era, courtesy of Hal’s Lamp Post, a site with an excellent and very interesting collection of mining artifacts.