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Safety Coreographed At Dizzying Heights On New Bay Bridge

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS) – Hundreds of workers spend their days hundreds of feet above the bay, and keeping them all safe is a huge job in itself.

At any given time, 800 workers move in and around at dizzying heights. Getting around is strictly choreographed. One false move could be your last.

The artistic director of this aerial ballet is Fernando Leon, Safety Officer for Caltrans. He has trained every iron worker, painter, construction worker or supervisor. Leon said it's all about the safety harness.

"What this test does is teach you how to wear properly your harness," explained Leon. "If it's tighter on this side, you will feel it. I can't see it, but you can feel it."

It's 800 pounds of force pulling down on you during the free-fall you'd experience until the tether stops you. It would take at least a half an hour before the fire department can rescue you.

Twenty-four workers died during construction of the original Bay Bridge. So far, none have died this time around thanks to the current safety precautions. Double, triple, or sometimes quadruple redundancy is being connected to some part of the bridge itself; there should never be a time when you aren't hooked on.

"The reason you have two of those is that you have to be tied up 100 percent of the time," said Leon. That's our policy. Anytime you climb up, you must be tied on totally. If you slip, down you go."

That, of course, is the fear. As you stand upwards of 500 feet above the Bay, at the top of the towers looking down, fear can—and does—creep in. That is also part of the training, as much as it can be.

"It's a tug of war in your mind. And that's what I tell people: you have to think positive and don't let your mind get overcome by fear. Fear makes us act differently," said Leon.

No one knows that better than 60-year-old Leon, who was terrified of heights as a younger man. He credits a near-death experience with the turn around.

"Once upon a time, when I worked for PG&E, we had a collision with a train," Leon recalls. "It was going to be a head-on collision but, luckily, we survived it."

Life's too short to worry about such things, he decided. And here he is today. For bridge workers who might need some help…he'll hook you up.

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