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The Guardian Fall Team Blog

They called it the Halfway to Hell Club. There were nineteen members. It was the 1930s and each of them helped construct the Golden Gate Bridge. Each of them fell. Each of them was saved by fall protection.

For most of the twentieth century, most fall protection consisted of keeping your wits about you and being lucky. Any large construction project was seen in terms of how much money and how many lives. Estimates at the time were that a life would be lost for every eleven million dollars spent. For every life they thought they might lose, they added a million dollars to their quotes.

Joseph Strauss, chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge couldn’t afford to lose lives. He was on a budget and on a schedule. Work had slowed down due to workers being cautious. He designed a safety net that was ten feet wider than the bridge and placed under it. It looked like a circus net. The result was a safer work place and that safety made workers work faster. The net made the workers feel so safe that they were threatened with dismissal for jumping into the net on purpose.

Over the course of construction the net saved nineteen people from falling 220 feet into the icy water below. They were the Halfway to Hell Club. On February 16, 1937 eleven men were working on a stripping platform, while two others worked below in the net. The five-ton platform fell into the net, hung there for a moment, and then snapped the net. One man held onto a beam and was rescued. The twelve others fell. Ten died. Two of them miraculously survived.

The safety net used during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge was one of the earliest examples of fall protection. It saved more lives than were lost.

While safety nets were one of the first fall protection innovations, they were by no means required or in wide use in the early part of the twentieth century. It was up to the employer if they wanted to use any personal protective equipment at all.