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Safe Bridge Building

60 years after the last major bridge was built in NY, the job is the same but much safer.

Brian Young's picture
Jan 12, 2016

When the Tappan Zee bridge project began two years ago, it represented the first new bridge to be built in the NY Metro Area since the Verrazano Narrows Bridge was finished in 1964.  Now over 60 years later a lot has changed.  The NY Times takes a look at what it takes to rebuild one of the busiest bridges in America.

Sixty years ago, safety was not a big concern for those building the Verrazano Bridge.  During the build, at least 5 people suffered major injuries including a tugboat captain who drowned and 4 workers who fell 40 feet onto concrete slabs.  With winter approaching, those who work on the bridge are facing increased winds and icy conditions, but in over two years, no major injuries have occurred.  This is partially due to new safety requirements that mandate that anyone working on heights or narrow beams must wear safety harnesses and these aren’t your grandfather’s safety harnesses.  These harnesses are required to wrap around the workers thighs, shoulders and waist and are equipped with shock absorbers to prevent back injuries that many in the trades have suffered when they have fallen. 

The bridge is primarily being built by members of various International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers local unions.  For Michael Shields, a member of Iron Workers Local 399, the daily work involves safely rigging and balancing the loads of concrete slabs on a crane, swinging them over to the steel framework and setting the slabs at the required elevation using leveling bolts, so the slabs are properly banked to adjust to the road’s curvature. “So it all lines up together nice,” he said. He has injured a shoulder on previous jobs and considers safety paramount, so that “everybody goes home at night.”

So far the bridge project has provided 5,000 jobs to trades members across the country, some with decades of experience building bridges and some who are just getting started.  According to Bob Walsh, Business Manager of Local 40, it is not uncommon for the men and women to work 60 hours a week to get the project done by its April 2017 deadline. 

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