The West Gate Bridge collapsed 50 years ago. Can similar tragedies be prevented?


At 11:50am today, building sites around Victoria will grind to a halt and cranes will sound their horns.

A minute’s silence will then honour the 35 workers killed when the West Gate Bridge collapsed 50 years ago, in Australia’s deadliest industrial accident.

For CFMEU Victorian secretary John Setka, October 15, 1970 is a day he remembers vividly.

Mr Setka was in prep and was taken to a hospital where his construction worker father lay injured and grazed after surviving the collapse.

The large memorial planned to mark the milestone anniversary will now be postponed to next year, and instead Mr Setka will head to the site with his father and son to lay a wreath.

John Sekta speaks at the bridge memorial service in 2018.(AAP: Penny Stephens)

Decades on, could ageing bridges pose a risk?

Aside from the stories of survivors and pictures from the day, physical reminders of the West Gate’s design flaws sit in a garden outside Monash University’s engineering faculty.

“I see those twisted remains of the collapse and it really brings it home to me,” said Colin Caprani, an associate professor in structural engineering and member of several international bridge safety groups.

Pieces of scrap metal at Monash University
Monash University’s West Gate garden reminds students of the dangers of engineering mistakes.(ABC News: Daniel Fermer)

“There are people involved and people have died. We have a sobering obligation in society to keep people safe.

“Bridges are an absolute need. The risks people are exposed to should be minimal.”

Dr Caprani said advancements in bridge design and computing made modern structures far safer than those built in the early to mid-20th century.

He believed modern ones are among the safest structures in the world.

But Dr Caprani has sounded a warning about future bridge collapses in Australia because of old structures coming to the end of their design life.

A close-up of a piece of curled shrapnel sits in a university garden
Dr Caprani says bridge safety has improved vastly since the West Gate tragedy.(ABC News: Daniel Fermer)

He has called for an increase in electronic monitoring of bridges across the country to better identify which require reinforcement and, as a last resort, need to be knocked down.

He pointed to the deadly 2018 collapse of Italy’s Ponte Morandi bridge, constructed in the 1960s, as a worst-case scenario.

“We rely so much on visual inspection — as skilled and as able as bridge inspectors are, they haven’t got X-ray eyes. They cannot see what’s going on inside the bridge.

“The subtle hints that something is wrong can only be picked up with monitoring systems.”

Smoke rises from the ground
Fire breaks out at the scene of the West Gate Bridge collapse, 1970. An image from the existing Public Records Office Victoria archives.(Supplied: Public Record Office Victoria)

Inspections were lagging behind

The Department of Transport said $45 million had been put towards routine bridge maintenance and inspection for more than 3,000 bridges across Victoria for the 2020–2021 financial year.

The inspection regime involves multiple checks each year, and more detailed inspections every two to five years.

However in 2018, The Age reported two-thirds of Victoria’s bridges were in need of some repair and at least 43 per cent had not been checked within a five-year period.

The department was unable to provide updated figures for 2020.

The department said it had real-time monitoring of several bridges, notably on the Princes Highway in eastern Victoria and on the Hamilton Highway in the state’s south-west.

A department spokesman said there were also no safety concerns around the West Gate Bridge, refuting media reports last week that the structure was “sinking”.

“The West Gate Bridge maintenance team is responsible for monitoring and maintaining the bridge year round, with strengthening, safety, and security upgrades undertaken regularly,” he said.

‘Our industry will always be dangerous’

Workers pictured walking away from the camera next to machinery in a huge underground tunnel.
Melbourne Metro Tunnel workers at the site of the future State Library Station in July 2019.(ABC News: Richard Willingham)

Victoria is in the middle of what the State Government has dubbed a “big build”, with major projects including the new West Gate Tunnel, Metro Tunnel, North East Link, M80 upgrade, and Monash Freeway upgrade.

Distinguished Professor Helen Lingard, an expert in construction worker safety, said there had been vast changes to laws and industry culture since the Westgate tragedy.

This included governments setting safety and welfare targets for companies awarded contracts for large projects.

However Professor Lingard said fatigue and mental illness continued to pose “significant” risks for construction workers.

“In some European countries, the evidence suggests two-thirds of the construction industry retire due to poor health. We’ve got to look at how sustainable these practices are over the life of a construction worker.”

The detail of a memorial plaque to the 35 men killed in the West Gate Bridge collapse.
A memorial to the men who died in the collapse was completed in 2004 at the site of the disaster in Melbourne’s west.(ABC News: Daniel Fermer)

Mr Setka agreed, and said construction safety and regulation had come a long way since his father’s fall from the West Gate Bridge.

“But our industry will always be dangerous,” he said.

“I wish I could one day say that we’ll be an industry where no-one will get killed at work or seriously injured,” he said.



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