Sally McManus speech to 48th Anniversary of the West Gate Bridge collapse

I’d like to start by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people of Kulin nation of whose land we are now standing.

It is worth recalling what happened on this land and why we are here today.

48 years ago today it was on this land that one of the most iconic bridges in Australia collapsed. Among the strewn rubble, 35 workers lay dead.

30 bolts failed in the morning of October 15th 1970 and a vicious buckle snaked along the panels.

At 11:50am on this day 48 years ago site controller Hindshaw asked his colleague the question “Should I get the bods off?”

The question should have been asked hours before and the answer was Yes, because almost immediately the bridge collapsed. Hindshaw’s body was found among the rubble.

More than 50 men came down with over 2,000 tons of steel and concrete and slammed into the waters of the Yarra River. 35 of those men would never return to work, or home or see their families again. 35 men taken. 35 families broken

Young men like Ross Bigmore who was to be married on Melbourne Cup Day that year and older men like Charles Lund who had already packed his bags to move with his wife and seven children to Queensland and be closer to his own mother.

And families like Mrs Butters whose husband Bernard was among the last confirmed killed when his body floated free from a tangled piece of sunken scaffolding eight days after the collapse.

But as in every tragedy that impacts us it was working people that showed the heroic values of mateship that makes Australia the land of the fair go.

From Bill Snowden who dug out his mate and refused to leave his side, to twenty year old John Doody who carried out the dead and the wounded for hours until he himself collapsed from exhaustion.

Ordered home to rest he was back within the hour.

Into the night and long the next day the emergency services workers toiled to free the dead and the living, aided by the work mates of the trapped and supported by the entire Victorian community.

And it would never be the same for those workers. Even those that survived would have to live with the pain of that time. The loss of their mates. The horrors of the rescue scene.

So we gather today to pay tribute to them all. The 35 who died. The dozens who survived. And we remember that workplace safety can never be taken for granted. That if the question “Should I get the bods off?” is even a thought in someone’s mind, that’s the time to act.

To act for the safety of the workers and the safety of their families. Because no one should ever have to wait at home afraid that their loved one won’t be coming back from work.

Every worker should make it home. After every shift. Every time.

There are some people who paint workplace safety as burden or as a union obsession that adds costs and delays to projects.

Well safety should be everyone’s obsession because there isn’t a project in this country, or any country, that is worth the life of a worker. If it can’t be done without killing a worker, without destroying a family, without scarring a community then it can’t be done.

The royal commission into the West Gate Bridge collapse ultimately found that “the margins of safety for the bridge were inadequate” and that the bosses had “failed in their duty to prevent the contractor from using procedures liable to be dangerous.”

And what’s changed? We’ve seen the recent crane collapse in Box Hill. We saw the wall collapse on Swanston St that killed people just walking down a public street.

We know that some bosses will cut corners to make more money. They roll the dice on safety. And it is worker’s lives they are gambling with, each and every time. If you do not have strong unions that say no to this behaviour, people die.

That’s why I stand with the CFMEU.

Because it is the building and construction unions, along with the transport unions, that face down injuries and deaths at work every single day. Workers join their union because they know that safety isn’t about red tape or putting a burden on business. Safety in construction if life or death.

Safety is about going home at the end of the day.

48 years ago, 35 workers came to this site and never went home. And we will never forget.