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Tearful Co-Worker Recalls Painters’ Fatal Shortcut

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

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A decision by three night-shift painters to take an unauthorized shortcut across the Forth Bridge cost one his life when he fell through the missing floor of an abandoned walkway, according to court testimony offered this week.

Robert MacDonald, 52, was part of a “close-knit” paint crew that was working its usual shift on the night of Jan. 27, 2010, when the three decided take an unauthorized route down from one of the highest points on the bridge, famed for its never-ending painting activity.

 Forth Bridge

 Forth Bridge Visitor Centre Trust

The unauthorized shortcut took three painters over the bridge’s highest part, where handrails had rotted away, witnesses said.

The crew opted for the shortcut to avoid having to use hoists to descend several levels, then climb up a series of 19 ladders to get back to another work station, witnesses told Sheriff Ian Dunbar, who is overseeing an inquiry into the case at Dunfermline Sheriff Court in Scotland.

‘I Don’t Know Why I Agreed’

Mick Muir, 43, a blaster and painter working for subcontractor ThyssenKrupp Palmers, testified tearfully at the proceeding that he, MacDonald and a third crew member, Joe McGinley, 56, had agreed to McGinley’s suggestion to use the shortcut to avoid “a sore climb.”

“I knew it was wrong, but I went with it,” said Muir, who had worked as a painter on the bridge for seven years. “I don't know why I agreed.”

Several newspapers recounted Muir’s harrowing account of the fateful detour. He said the men had had to climb over a barrier made of scaffolding poles to use the abandoned walkway, which led down a sloping cross-member of the bridge toward the second work area.

Led by McGinley, the men helped each other clamber over the bridge’s main leg, where the handrails had completed rotted away, leaving them exposed at the very top of the structure.

‘I Knew He Had Just Dropped’

Farther along, though the team did not know it, two sections of floor grating were missing.

On Monday, a shaken McGinley testified that he had gotten around the gap by edging sideways across the empty beam that had supported the missing grating. He said he thought the others would also see the hole. He then kicked a hole in the plastic sheeting that surrounded the work area to get through.

Muir was in the rear, well behind MacDonald, when he fell 150 feet through the floor of the bridge, apparently crashing through some scaffolding and landing out of the crew’s reach, several newspapers reported.

“Rab was about 40 feet in front of me,” Muir said, wiping away tears, according to reports. “I could see that Rab was using the handrails, and he was carrying his bag in front of him.”

“Then I just saw the bag go up in the air. I knew he had just dropped and fallen. I shouted to Joe, ‘Rab's fell - he is dead.’”

Crew Warned, Foreman Says

George Lowe, foreman for main contractors Balfour Beatty, testified Wednesday that all workers would have been warned not to take unauthorized routes. Earlier, McGinley agreed that he had been warned.

“You are told in induction that the whole job is scaffold-based and you should only walk on the green walkways,” Lowe testified. “You should never, ever cross something with a double hand rail.

“It's only advanced scaffolders that will go there—nobody except for them.”

Lowe said he had been “shocked" to receive a phone call from Archie Neilston, a grit remover, reporting an accident. No one should have been on the bridge at that time, Lowe said.

“I said, ‘What are you doing? Where are you?’”

Neilston testified that MacDonald was “unlikely” to have taken a route that he thought was unsafe.

‘Rab’s Fell’

Recalling the accident, Neilston said, “I heard Mick shouting and he sounded distressed. I found him lying on the deck, hysterical, saying 'Rab's fell.'”

“I said I would climb down a couple of levels and see if I can see him."

Neilston said he had found MacDonald on “either the bottom level or the second bottom; I think he had crashed through the scaffold boards.”

After shouting MacDonald’s name “10 or 12 times” over several minutes, Neilston called Lowe.

Nearly 100 men died during construction of the bridge, which opened in 1890. MacDonald’s was the first worker death on the bridge since 1992.

The hearing will resume Dec. 13.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Fall protection; Fatalities; Health and safety; Painters; ThyssenKrupp

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