Iconic bridges chart our changing attitudes

Image: Transport Scotland

From the Forth Rail Bridge to the Queensferry Crossing, bridging the River Forth has not been without its health and safety challenges. To mark the opening of the new Queensferry Crossing, Lesley McLeod, chief executive of the Association for Project Safety (APS) takes a look at the link between historical and modern health and safety practices faced by construction workers as each of the three bridges over the River Forth were built.

Lesley McLeod

THE first Forth Bridge – Scotland’s iconic monument to 19th century railway engineering – was born out of failure and loss of life – exactly what The Association for Project Safety is here to reduce.

The Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 made the bridge-builders of the day determined that a similar disaster would never happen again.

The Forth bridge was designed to replace the roll/rail ferry that operated from Granton to Burntisland. Designed by Thomas Bouch for the Edinburgh and Northern Railway, it had proved such a success that Bouch was asked to create a suspension bridge across the Firth of Forth.

However, there were technical difficulties with the foundations and questionable financial ‘jiggery-pokery’ that called the whole project into question. But, what finally put pay to the original plans, was the collapse – in high winds and umpteen stanzas of William McGonagall’s epically bad poetry – of the Tay Rail Bridge.

Confidence in Bouch collapsed along with the bridge and the project was handed over to engineers Fowler and Barlow determined to build the bridge that would never collapse. And, thankfully, so it has proved.

The cantilever bridge they built is a lasting testament to Scotland’s construction skills. It is a legacy which endures. From Andrew Meikle’s threshing machine which revolutionised feeding the expanding working classes; famous names like Watt, Telford and James Clerk Maxwell; to the engine-room of the Starship Enterprise – Scots’ engineering became the worldwide byword for competence and safety.

The rail bridge was the first major structure in Britain to be built of steel. Spanning the Forth from South to North Queensferry the bridge is 2,467.05 metres long and rises nearly 46 metres above the water at high tide. It weighs over 50,000 tonnes and the giant Meccano set is held together by a mind-blowing 6.5 million-odd rivets.

It was a huge UK national endeavour.

The cantilevers came from Wales and Scotland. The rivets – all 4,000 plus tonnes of them – came from the Clyde Rivet Company. The cement came from Kent. And then there was rubble from Arbroath and vast amounts of granite from Aberdeen.

But the pride, triumph and integrity of the Forth Rail Bridge was bought at the price of the lives of the men who built the structure.

By the time the bridge opened in December 1889 it had cost the lives of 73 workers either on the bridge itself or its approaches. Like construction projects today, most died from accidents due to working at height.  It is thought that 38 of the deaths resulted from men falling from the massive structure and another eight when things fell on them from above.

Others were crushed or drowned. One worker even died of the bends after working on the caissons which allowed the supporting pillars to be completed.

No accurate numbers exist about the fate of the workers who supported the work in factories and quarries or the life-changing illnesses they may have contracted subsequently. However, even then there was a recognition that workers and their families needed help and support – the Sick and Accident Club provided medical treatment and sick pay for workers and support for bereaved families.

Fast forward to 1964 and the opening of the ‘guid passage’ of the current Forth Road Bridge.

It just goes to show that, while everything changes, all things stay the same. In these days, where the whole country seems bogged down by Brexit, similar concerns were to the fore even in mini-skirted sixties when Britain was worried about overseas competition.

Then a consortium of the country’s three largest engineering firms – Sir William Arrol and Company, the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company and Forman Long (Bridge and Engineering) Ltd – was formed to keep work in the UK.

Then, as now, plans for a road bridge had fallen foul of major recession – the Depression of the 1930s – and dreams of a new crossing stalled not to start up again until after the end of the Second World War. Work didn’t actually start until 1958.

When it was opened the grade A listed bridge was the longest outside the USA – stretching 1006 metres between the towers and a little more than 2.5 kilometres in total if you include the approach to the viaducts on either side. Its towers soar 150 metres above the high-water mark and its feet are buried 32 metres below the surface.

Thankfully, fewer lives were lost. And, although every death is both a tragedy for the bereaved and a failure of the ability to safety-proof the build, only seven workers were killed during the construction of the road bridge. That’s just a tenth of the death toll on the first bridge.

But the road bridge was not adequately future-proofed and had to be strengthened to cope with modern demands. No one could have foreseen then how today’s traffic would tax the fabric of the bridge or the patience of drivers forced to move at snails’ pace as traffic is funnelled into limited road space.

The road bridge was designed to cope with 11 million crossings a year. In its first full year of operation the bridge carried 729,542 vehicles. But rising car and home ownership, with resulting commuting from Fife, allied to road haulage – symbolised by Amazon’s massive logistics centre outside Dunfermline – daily adds to the transport burden which now sees some 24 million vehicles cross the Forth every year.

So, now we are getting a new bridge to help take the strain. Work got underway in 2011 and, when it opens, the Queensferry Crossing will be the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world at some 2.7 kilometres long.

And it nearly was a record-breaker for safety too. Sadly, however, last winter one worker fell to his death from the structure. But one death is, gratefully, less than seven and much better than the 73 who perished on the rail bridge.

The three bridges chart our changing times and attitudes.

They are icons for their age and the dreams of the societies who built them. But they point to an aspiration too. The whole APS family is committed to helping professionals in the construction industry design and manage building projects in ways that minimise, where possible, risks resulting in accidents and ill-health. Perhaps by the time we need to think about a fourth Forth bridge we can hope for the toll – just like the old payment to cross – to be abolished.