BLF - OHS - CHAPTER ONE - 19TH C: FREE FOR ALL
CENTURY: FREE FOR ALL
Victoria’s Master Builders made their attitudes towards safety clear early in 1890 when they demanded the sacking of the Colony’s coroner, Dr Richard Youl, who had been unpopular with employers ever since his appointment in 1853. Youl believed that his duties went beyond establishing the cause of “accidental” deaths to preventing their recurrence. His latest offence was to attribute the death of a bricklayer to the Vice-President of the Builders’ and Contractors’ Association. The employers’ Building and Engineering Journal (B&EJ) blamed the victim for “his own imprudence and recklessness, which led him to lean upon the green brickwork.”
A fatality in the following year, 1891, highlighted the legal obstacles confronting Dr Youl. After a jerry-built wall crushed a plasterer to death, the authorities laid manslaughter charges against the architect and builder. A defence lawyer warned the jury against relying on the testimony of experts. The accused walked free.
A similar verdict followed the death of Robert Hannah when a scaffold collapsed during alterations to the Eastern Market on Bourke Street in 1894. The coronial jury agreed that there had been neglect, but not criminal neglect; it called for greater protection for passers-by, not for the workmen. This time, the B&EJ condemned such pussy-footing: “it was evident that there was neglect in both construction and overloading.” The journal adopted this stance because the accused were price-cutters whose shoddiness allowed them to underbid “professional men”.
meant money and speed spelt danger. Builders incurred penalties for
running late. After rainy spells, they urged their labourers to go faster.
Because wet weather made the sites slippery, the men needed to be more
than usually careful. On a
The non-unionist dared not speak these thoughts. Desperate for a job, he accepted the risks, confining his objections to his diary.
When the NSW government named an Inspector of Scaffolding in December 1891, one puzzle about his appointment was that he had no regulations to enforce. The Inspector described himself as an architect. The B&EJ deplored the selection of this “political agitator of some note” who was so old and so fat that he could no more climb a ladder than judge a scaffold. As the Legislative Assembly debated his appointment, some on the Labor cross-benches feared that contractors would use a stamp of approval from the incompetent inspector to escape from those sections of the Employers’ Liability Act that required labourers to prove neglect in order to secure compensation.
who stayed in the building industry picked up knacks, helped by their
workmates. Victorian ABLF organiser Dick Loughnan recalled that most
scaffolders had, like him,
Scaffolders found their own tools, which included a “tomahawk, a marline spike, a needle and palm for sewing, pinch bars, plugging chisel and saw.”(p. 354)
was the call for workmates or passers-by to watch out for falling objects
or when loads were being shifted. The cry was never effective and became
useless as buildings went higher and sites noisier.
Other dangers multiplied with the storeys in the
1880s. Two workers died on the Sydney GPO clock tower as did a couple of
lads working on the Sydney Lands Office with the “parting of a cable”.
The methods and materials for constructing scaffolds up to 10m. were
inadequate at 46m. Multi-storey
structures, therefore, brought new forms of scaffolding on which labourers
extended their capacities through trial and error. At twelve storeys, the
taller buildings heralded progress for capital, they brought no advance in
safety. Six deaths during the construction of the Equitable Life offices
led to the site’s being nicknamed the “slaughter house”. Pieces
of skull and brain splattered along
buildings went higher, the weight of their foundations became enormous.
Some stones were two metres thick. For lifting such weights,
architect-engineers adapted principles older than the Gothic Cathedrals.
Loads were now raised by steam cranes set on a platform (gantry) which
stood above the building. Until the cranes were operating, the crews had
no machinery which meant that the cranes had to be hauled up by hand. (p.
311) An alternative had been to attach a traveling set of pulleys to the
top of the scaffolding: “The erection of the upper tier of such
scaffolding, especially the first sections was rather anxious work, and
was generally a job for Ship’s Carpenters.” Those “shellbacks”
were also useful in erecting the gantries, although labourers supervised
Seafaring had been the prime preparation for many scaffolders. The term “rigger” came ashore with them, along with their knack for tying knots. Nonetheless, a scaffolder observed that even these “shellbacks” needed “some time before they can put up a scaffolding the way required by the men working on it.” Because the ex-sailors “stand on the scaffolding, with no guard rail or life-line” they usually needed “one hand for themselves and one for the shop, as the saying is.” (pp. 316-7)
scaffolds used for minor repairs were among the most hazardous. A man
could fall to his death from the roof of a single-storey terrace, or off a
2m. ladder. Few of the injuries resulted from the collapse of a scaffold.
Nonetheless, even the firmest structure was a hazard if it did not have
enough planking and handrails; in addition, the rails had to be strong
enough to withstand the weight of a labourer who stumbled against them.
Hence, the unions wanted those supports to be of
Loaded with twelve or more bricks, a hod-carrier needed a solid plank to walk along. Safety required that the planking be broad enough for him to wheel a barrow without watching every step. One unionist left a job because the foreman would not allow him to use enough flooring:
If a man lost his balance because the planking was too narrow, he let go of his materials and tools to grasp for support. Thus, narrow planking increased the likelihood of bricks and equipment tumbling onto those below. Loughnan recalled the challenges he had faced in steering a loaded barrow along a plank 30cm. wide:
Loughnan had wheeled 20m. above the ground with “absolutely nothing to guard the workman at all.” (p. 366) A labourer on the Victoria Brewery was wheeling bricks about 6m. up when he overbalanced on a scaffold with no guard-rail. When he landed on some tubs, his intestines burst.(p. 357)
was the most hazardous form of
labouring because the men worked without scaffolds, standing on the
structures they had to knock down. In cleaning up the city block along
navvies, blasting the way for rail track was the deadliest of jobs.
Fifteen men died along a single section of the New England line in the
four years leading up to the 1884 strike; by then, seven lives had been sacrificed at a single
Late in 1891, the young artist Arthur Streeton depicted a similar death in
one of his blue-gold landscapes, “‘Fire! Fire’s On!’”, at the
Lapstone Tunnel in the
When they did return, so did the cycle of blast and injury. A week later, Streeton wrote of a labourer with
Australian Dictionary of
Biography, volume 6, MUP,
Thomas Dobeson memoirs, Mitchell Library (ML), MSS 2980; see also
Guide for scaffolders,
Department of Labour and Industry,
 Transcript of 1913 Award Hearings in the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation v A. W. Archer, Australian Archives B1958 (B1958/1) 9/1912, the page references are given in brackets.
Age, 23 November 1897, p. 4;
Michael Cannon, The Land Boomers,
 Architecture, November 1924, p. 7.
Denis Rowe, “The Robust Navvy: the Railway Construction Worker in
 Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts, postmarked 17 December and later in December 1891, Ann Galbally and Anne Gray (eds), Letters from Smike, The Letters of Arthur Streeton, 1890-1943, OUP, Melbourne, 1989, pp. 39-41.