Worker on the Framework of the Empire State Building

Lewis Wickes Hine took this photo of a workman—at considerable height—fastening bolts on a beam of the Empire State Building during its construction in 1930.

Who built the Empire State Building? Was it customary, at the time, for workers to have (or not have) safety equipment in place, particularly when they were working at height on the world's then-tallest body?

For answers to those questions—and more—we can check-out a story aired by Kansas Public Radio:

The Starrett Brothers served as general contractors for the Empire State Building, which was officially dedicated on May 1, 1931. Paul Starrett, the most famous of the brothers, was born in Lawrence [Kansas]. He also headed the family business.

Working with his brother William, they completed the skyscraper in just 11 months. The pace of construction was so dizzying and stressful that after the work was done, Paul suffered a severe nervous breakdown.

Paul and William were two of five Starrett brothers, all of whom worked in the industry, either in association or as competitors - four were builders, one was an architect. Their father was a minister in Lawrence during the town’s early days.

The Starrett Brothers were also responsible for construction of New York City’s Flatiron Building, Penn Station and the Plaza and Biltmore hotels. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., was another one of the company’s many projects.

What about the safety of the men who built the building? In his book, The Empire State Building, Ronald A. Reis tells us:

Grateful for work during the Great Depression, men learned to ignore their fears as they built the 85 floors of the Empire State Building. (See Reis, at page 61.)

Were workers protected at such heights? The best protection they had was to keep their focus. William Starrett, one of the brothers responsible for building this New York City landmark, addressed the safety issue in 1928:

…If there ever was an experience to bring to the human body its sense of helplessness and despair, its agonies and terrors, it is the sensation felt by one who has not had training when he suddenly finds himself out on a narrow beam or plane, high above the ground and unprotected by a hand-hold of any kind. (Starrett, quoted by Reis, at page 67.)

Despite the lack of basic protections, for at-height workers, potential employees flocked to the job site. Construction started in 1930, after the Market Crash of 1929, and people were grateful for the work:

Yet they came by the hundreds to work, to construct the tallest building in the world. The Empire State Building would have no trouble finding ironworkers: Swedes, Danes, Finns, Norwegians, Irishmen and, of course, Mohawks, ready and eager to frame its skeleton. (Reis, page 67.)

What was the typical wage for these workers?

The average worker on the skyscraper earned $15 a day, an excellent rate in the early 1930s. A hoisting engineer, however – a member of the alpha raising gang – could command $2.31 per hour, or $18.48 for an eight-hour day; double pay was offered for overtime and Saturday work. (Reis, at 68.)

How long was a typical workday?

Many a laborer began his workday at three thirty in the morning, while most of New York slept, and did not finish until four thirty in the afternoon – 13 hours later. (Reis, at 68.)

The men worked in groups, called “gangs.” If one member of a five-member gang called-in sick, the entire gang did not work that day. No work meant no pay.

It was wise not to report for duty if a worker was feeling unwell. One slip of a foot could result in death:

Steelworkers, mostly immigrants and Mohawk Indians, had to be physically and mentally disciplined in order to work at great heights. Laboring night and day, more than 3,000 men managed to construct four-and-a-half floors each week until the Empire State Building was completed. (Reis, at 69.)

On a clear day, people can see 80 miles from the ESB's observatories:

On the clearest of days, visibility from the Observatories is 80 miles, with five states in view – New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. (See “Empire State Building Fact Sheet.”)

How many people died, building this world-famous building? Official records tell us that five people died while the building was under construction:

  • One person was hit by a truck;
  • Another fell down an elevator shaft;
  • One individual was killed by explosives;
  • Another worker was struck by a hoist;
  • One person fell from the scaffolding.

Not all injuries are fatal, and the ironworkers who built the structure of the Empire State Building—such as the chap depicted at the top of this page—certainly sustained non-fatal injuries. Jim Rasenberger gives us a glimpse into their at-height world in his book, High Steel:

Strangely, though, one group of key players is usually neglected in the telling of the skyline’s drama: the men who risked the most and labored the hardest to make it happen.

Called ironworkers, or, more specifically, structural ironworkers, these are the brave and agile men who raised the steel in the sky: the generations of Americans and Newfoundlanders and Mohawk Indians who balanced on narrow beams high above the city to snatch steel off incoming derricks or crane hooks and set it in place – who shoved it, prodded it, whacked it, reamed it, kicked it, shoved it some more, swore at it, straddled it, pounded it mercilessly, and then riveted it or welded it or bolted it up and went home.

That was on a good day. On a bad day, they went to the hospital or the morgue. Steel is an unforgiving material and, given any chance, bites back.

It was a lucky ironworker who made it to retirement without losing a few fingers or breaking a few bones. And then, of course, there was always the possibility of falling. Much ironwork was done hundreds of feet in the air, where a single false step meant death. Steel was the adversary that made them sweat and bleed. It was gravity, though, that usually killed them. (See High Steel, at pages 3-4.)

The public-domain photo, at the top of this page, is online via the U.S. National Archives. Click on it for a full-page view.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5186stories and lessons created

Original Release: Mar 05, 2017

Updated Last Revision: Sep 01, 2017

Media Credits

Image, online via the U.S. National Archives, by Lewis Wickes Hine. Photo taken by Hine during 1930. National Archives Identifier 518290. Public domain.


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"Worker on the Framework of the Empire State Building" AwesomeStories.com. Mar 05, 2017. May 23, 2019.
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