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Remembering the day our workplace safety rules changed forever

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Victoria’s parliament is marking the 50th anniversary of the West Gate Bridge disaster, the state’s worst industrial accident.

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On 15 October 1970, a 112-metre span of the partially constructed bridge collapsed, killing 35 workers and leaving 18 others seriously injured.

On Thursday, both houses of parliament will hold a minute’s silence at 11.50am, the time of the accident, while building sites around the state will grind to a halt and cranes will sound their horns.

The flags on top of the West Gate Bridge will be at half-mast until 7pm.

“In the blink of an eye at 11.50am 50 years ago, 88 children lost their fathers 28 women became widows,” Roads Minister Ben Carroll told reporters on Thursday.

“Today, we remember those 35 lives lost, but also the important reforms that have come over the past 50 years.”

Workplace Safety Minister Ingrid Stitt said it was important to remember the tragedy as the state embarks on a number of new infrastructure projects.

“It’s very important that as Victorians we all refocus our commitment to making sure that every Victorian worker comes home to their families safe every day,” she said.

Animal Justice MP Andy Meddick has staged his own memorial in the parliament’s Queen’s Hall, with 58 white roses representing those killed and injured.

Handwritten notes will display the names and professions of the victims.

“It’s extremely important that we remember the worst industrial disaster that this state, that perhaps this country’s ever seen, because it was seminal in how this country and how the state then dealt with the rights of workers going forward,” Meddick told reporters outside parliament.

“So many of the strides that the union movement has made in the rights of workers, in all workplaces stem from that moment. And it certainly changed the construction industry I worked in for 20-odd years.”

Construction union boss John Setka said his father was lucky to survive the accident, riding the bridge as it crashed down.

“We’ve come a long way when it comes to enforcing safety on worksites, but the enormity of this tragedy will never be forgotten,” he said in a statement.

“Today we pay our respects to the 35 workers who lost their lives and those who have been impacted by the tragedy forever, and remember why it is so important to continue to fight every day for the safety and lives of our members, to ensure they get home to their families.”

A commemoration at the West Gate Memorial Park in suburban Spotswood, near the site of the accident, to mark the milestone anniversary is on hold because of Melbourne’s coronavirus restrictions.

Setka will head to the site with his father and son to lay a wreath.

The park was opened in 2004 to honour the victims of the accident and to increase awareness of workplace safety.

The Victorian Trades Hall will host an online tribute on Facebook.

-AAP

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