Luke Hilakari, Secretary VTHC, Westgate Bridge speech October 15 2016

Can I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Wurundjeri people, pay my deep respects to their elders both past and those here present. Always was, always will be aboriginal land.

I’d like to thank all of you for coming today and I’m quite touched that I have been asked to speak. I’d like to acknowledge those who were there when the collapse happened, family members, workmate and those who care about safety.

As some of you may know, I am not from the construction industry. I’ve never worked in a job where you have to deal with heights, where the physical structure of your workplace is ever changing, where people are using heavy machinery and where you are surrounded by different workers, in different trades every day. Where I work I could go into the office every day with a blindfold on and find my way to my desk and the worst that might ever happen to me is a stubbed toe.

So I can only imagine what the workers on the West Gate Bridge project went through, 46 years ago.

Last night I read reports from Pat Preston and a video of Tommy Watson and I read the royal commission report about the collapse.

I think it’s important that we take a moment to remember what happened in the lead up to the bridge collapsing, because learning the lessons of this collapse will stop future accidents.


We know that

  • This bridge was a massive infrastructure commitment of the Liberal Bolte state government 
  • 4 months before the collapse, a similar bridge, Milford Haven Bridge in Wales, collapsed during constructions, so unions had some early concerns. 
  • A month before the collapse the northern span of the bridge was 10.4cm higher than the southern side. 
  • To fix the problem, John Holland, a company we all know a bit about, placed down 10, 8 tonne massive concrete blocks on the bridge, with no calculations done on the stress it may cause 
  • This caused a 3 metre long buckle 
  • This was confirmed on the 9th of September, more than a month before the collapse by the resident engineer Jack Hindshaw, who noted in his diary “obvious overstress due to concrete”
  • A month later on the 14th October the day before the collapse, instructions were given in writing to straighten the bridge.
  • In writing we know was very unusual, it’s used as an ass covering mechanism. Let me get something in writing just in case it goes wrong. So there were concerns
  • So to reduce the stress they were going to take out some bolts
  • Work started at 8.30am on the 15th of October. After 16 bolts had been loosened significant slipping of the steel plate occurred.
  • Eventually 37 bolts were removed
  • At this stage a major change took place. The buckle which had been limited to one section of steel, suddenly spread across the structural steel of the bridge.
  • At 11am efforts were made to contact the resident engineer to tell him things had gone wrong
  • Arriving on sit the engineer assessed the situation and was gravely concerned
  • At approximately 11.30am the resident engineer called for further advice.
  • Almost immediately after the call at 11.50am workers heard a groan from the bridge.


  • They heard an eerie pinging noise. A storm of rust flakes peeled off the steel. The girders started to turn blue, a jarring screech of metal moving across metal was heard. The bridge collapsed at 11.50am, October 15, 1970.
  • 2000 tonnes of concrete and steel and people, fell 50 metres. The noise of the collapse could be heard 20kms away.
  • A number of the killed and injured workers were in break huts that John Holland had placed directly under the bridge. This was a very unusual practice even then.
  • Emergency services arriving on the site attempted to usher workers away. But many were unwilling to leave. They were determined to stay for their friends, to try to dig out those trapped beneath the rubble and debris.
  • Their job was made harder by the diesel fire that started from fuel also stored under the bridge


In all

35 workers were killed

18 workers were injured


A Royal Commission was scathing on those responsible for the design and construction of the bridge.

Many of the survivors, have gone on to dedicate their lives to ensuring safety standards at work.


Men like Pat Preston and Tommy Watson are the reason we have the OHS laws that we have today, it wasn’t the Royal Commission, but those unionists who fought for the safety of workers.

They knew tragedies like this were completely avoidable.


No one should be injured or killed at work.

Sadly this year 23 Victorian’s have already lost their lives at work, further a construction worker is killed or severely injured every nine minutes in Australia. In just the last two weeks, three workers have been killed on construction sites.

Two of those workers killed in Brisbane were crushed by a concrete slab weighing up to ten tonnes falling onto them.


I’d like to wrap up on this…

When people who don’t know unions, say things like why are the CFMEU so tough? Or what’s wrong with the ABCC? Why are unions so aggressive to employers?

 I remind them of what happened here, at the West Gate Bridge.

I remind them of the workers that were lost

I remind them of the families that lost a father, a brother, a son or a husband.

Comrades, that’s the reason we remember the dead and fight so hard for the living.