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How History (and the Mothman) Impact Safety Policies

October 4, 2017

The third weekend in September brings about the annual Mothman Festival in the small town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The festival is a two-day event celebrating all things Mothman, and is the largest festival in the state of West Virginia, with as many as 14,000 attendees. The Mothman is a figure steeped in mystery, most only know the legend from the 2002 movie “The Mothman Prophecies” starring Richard Gere. 

Safety Policies.jpgAs a West Virginian and a fan of the movie, my daughter and I decided to make the trip from Pittsburgh to Point Pleasant and see what all the fuss was about. It was a lot of fun with many things to see and do. There were lectures on the history of Point Pleasant and the events surrounding the Mothman sightings; bands played on the riverfront and numerous street vendors selling everything from food to T-shirts. 

So why do all these people come together every September in this sleepy little town on the banks of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers?     

On December 15, 1967, just two short weeks before Christmas, a malfunctioning traffic light caused cars to back up during rush hour traffic onto the Silver Bridge connecting Point Pleasant, West Virginia to Gallipolis, Ohio. The weight and stress on the bridge caused it to collapse, sending cars plunging into the Ohio River resulting in the deaths of 46 people. About a year leading up to the collapse, more than 100 people reported seeing a birdlike creature around the town of Point Pleasant. The local newspaper referred to the creature as Mothman. The name stuck. Many claimed the creature was attempting to warn the community something tragic was about to happen.

While many see the festival as a time to come together to have fun, others see it as a time to remember those who lost their lives on that fateful December day. Whether you believe in the Mothman or not, the real question is: Why did the collapse occur?  

After investigating the bridge collapse, it was determined that a minute crack formed in a steel eye-bar during the casting process. Due to stress and corrosion, it gave way, placing stress on other parts of the bridge and causing a complete failure. The adage, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, rings tragically true in the case of the Silver Bridge. 

Blame was placed on everything, from inspection procedures to the manufacturing processes. Some even placed blame on the Mothman. However, if we take a closer look at the history of the bridge, is it possible we’ve missed something that’s been staring us right in the face?

When the Silver Bridge opened in 1928, the average vehicle weight was less than 1,500 pounds. By 1967, the average had ballooned to more than 4,000 pounds. While in 1928 West Virginia law limited vehicle weight with a load maximum of 20,000 pounds, in 1967 the loaded weight limit had increased to more than 60,000 pounds. Many factors are accounted for in the engineering process, but no one could reasonably foresee tripling traffic loads 40 years after construction.

A lack of safety policies and procedures are more to blame. The collapse of the Silver Bridge resulted in an immediate national survey on bridge safety lead by a Presidential Task Force. These efforts resulted in the congressional passage of the National Bridge Inspection Standards of 1968.

So, what can we learn from this tragedy more than 50 years after it occurred?

As times change, so do our processes, materials, and equipment. To maintain strong safety policies, it’s critical that we take a fresh look at safety every single day. What worked in the past to prevent injuries might not be effective today. Safety leaders have a responsibility to their employees and should view safety as a continuous improvement process; by doing so, we can help see those potential hazards staring back at us.

making safety personal

David Juristy David Juristy is Vice President of Sales, and the executive leader of PSI’s safety practice. He has used his background in Industrial Operations and military training in Quality & Safety compliance to work with many of today’s top companies to implement safety solutions.