SAN FRANCISCO – As the Golden Gate Bridge was being built, Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer, was often asked: How long would the bridge last? His answer was always the same.
“Forever,” he said.
The bridge turned 80 on Saturday — not quite forever, but nearly a lifetime. And how long the bridge lasts depends on a small army of painters, ironworkers, electricians and engineers whose job over the years has taken them to the top and the bottom of the towers and everywhere else on it.
Currently, the Golden Gate Bridge employs 32 painters, five painter laborers, 19 ironworkers, and three ironworker foremen, called “pushers” in the trade. A superintendent is in overall charge.
Though the painters are the most visible of the maintenance crew, it’s the ironworkers, who walk the high steel and build the scaffolding for the painters, who capture the public imagination.
“We have a nickname. They call us Sky Cowboys,” said Phillip Chaney, 57, the ironworker superintendent.
Their job is to replace rusting rivets with bolts, to build scaffolding for the painters and to make sure the bridge is sound. “The paint protects the steel, but it’s the steel that holds up the bridge,” he said.
“We have a corner office with a view,” said Darren McVeigh, 51, an ironworker who has worked on the Golden Gate Bridge for 15 years and in the trade since 1982. It’s “rough and dirty work,” he said, but it’s a good job.
Ironworkers report at 6:30 in the morning and are off by 3. It’s a union job, and the pay is good: $41.53 an hour, according to bridge district figures. It takes a four-year apprenticeship to become a journeyman and Golden Gate work is especially prized in the trade: Bridge workers get 13 paid holidays, plus vacation.
In other jobs, McVeigh said, “When you don’t work, you don’t get paid.”
On the other hand, working on the Golden Gate presents special problems. The bridge crosses a strait on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and it is famous for its wind and fog.
“Sometimes it cuts through you like a knife,” said McVeigh. “It’s brutal, just brutal. At the end of the day, all you can do is stand under a hot shower.”
The moisture from the fog and rain also add an element of danger to the work because it makes the steel slippery.
No one can be an ironworker who has a fear of heights, but the trade requires a finely honed sense of caution. “You know the saying: ‘One hand for the company and one hand for yourself,’ ” McVeigh said.
All ironworkers on the bridge are required to wear a harness — 100 percent tie-off they call it — but there’s a trade-off. With layers of clothing on a chilly day, a harness, and a tool belt, ironworkers look like bears up on the steel. It makes it harder to move.
Though 11 workers were killed during construction, there have been only two fatal accidents involving bridge crews in the past 80 years. In 1970, a painter fell to his death and in 2003 an ironworker in the employ of a contractor died in an accident during a seismic retrofit project.
There are also injuries, especially working with steel beams and building scaffolding. “You get hand smashes and eye injuries, back injuries, bad knees,” McVeigh said.
They also face death, especially when someone is threatening suicide. Bridge workers are trained to intervene and will go the railing to try to stop someone from jumping. “We put on a harness and tie off so if they go, we are not going to go with them,” McVeigh said.
Like the others, he has talked some would-be jumpers off the edge. “I’ve lost count,” he said. “Maybe a dozen.”
In the next few years, a suicide barrier will be strung under the deck. The work won’t be done by in-house ironworkers but by ironworkers hired by contractors.
The ironworkers’ main work at the bridge is keeping it standing. “There’s an old saying,” McVeigh said. “Rust never rests.”
Chaney pointed to a long color-coded chart in an engineering office near the toll plaza. It’s a conceptual printout of the bridge, showing the results of regular inspections: green for good steel, yellow for caution, red for problems.
Last year, the ironworkers spent a lot of time replacing some of the 600,000 rivets in the Marin tower. Rusted rivets are removed by a device called a “rivet buster” and are replaced with steel bolts.
Most of this year is devoted to building stages — “dance floors” they are called — under the roadway deck, so old paint and some steel can be replaced. The stages are surrounded by tent-like structures that keep the old paint and debris from falling into the water.
It takes months to build the stages and the tenting, careful work done under the roadway. It’s not as dramatic as high work on the 746-foot-tall towers, but just as important.
There are other jobs, too. “I have guys working on greasing the bearings on the deck,” Chaney said. Like all suspension spans, the Golden Gate Bridge moves with the weight of traffic and with the wind. The steel moves. “You don’t want a stiff structure,” he said.
After the stages are done, the next big job will be to work on the San Francisco tower, where the effects of wind and rain have left the tower shabby, as if it needs a new paint job. “It’s structurally sound,” Chaney said, “but not aesthetically.”
Not everybody can work on what may be the world’s most famous bridge. Like others on the bridge, McVeigh is proud. “When you are driving to work and see it in the windshield,” he said, “you say to yourself: ‘Wow! Look at this thing!’ ’’