Work Zone Safety Week

Roadway work zones bring together a dangerous mix of construction workers and motor vehicle operators. These resources can help you in your efforts to reduce injuries and fatalities in these hazardous workplaces.

by Michael J. Blotzer, MS, CIH, CSP

Writers and philosophers teach us that true happiness lies in the journey, not the destination. Yet few of us find joy when the highway of life passes through a road construction work zone. And many are blinded to danger by their need for speed.

A flagger at a construction work zone signals a 10-ton produce truck to stop at a road construction work zone. As it comes to a complete stop, the produce truck is struck from behind by a tractor-trailer traveling about 55 miles per hour. The impact throws the produce truck through the air a short distance before careening into the opposing traffic lane, striking and killing a 33-year-old female construction worker. The tractor-trailer driver is airlifted to a trauma center. Miraculously, the produce truck operator escapes injury.

Deadly Mix

Roadway work zones bring together a dangerous mix of construction workers and motor vehicle operators. Obstructions and traffic congestion on the choked construction zone roadway increases the risk of motor vehicle accidents. And motor vehicle traffic creates a serious hazard for construction workers.

Statistics confirm this deadly mix. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reports that the number of people killed in motor vehicle crashes in work zones rose from 693 in 1997 to 1,181 in 2002. In addition to the fatalities, more than 40,000 people are injured each year in motor vehicle work zone crashes.

FHWA analysis of the 1,079 motor vehicle work zone fatalities in 2001 revealed:

  • 85 percent of all fatalities were motor vehicle drivers or occupants.
  • 70 occurred on roads with speed limits of 55 miles per hour or greater.
  • Rear-end crashes (running into the rear of a slowing or stopping vehicle) was the most common type of work zone crash.
  • 249 occurred in crashes involving large trucks.

Statistics are equally grim for the roadway construction workers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that each year more than 100 workers are killed and over 20,000 injured in the highway and street construction industry. Of the 841 work-related fatalities in the U.S. highway construction industry between 1992 and 1998, 465 (55 percent) were vehicle or equipment-related incidents that occurred in a work zone.

Improving Work Zone Safety

The Roadway Work Zone Safety and Health Coalition is trying to make a difference. Coalition members are key industry and labor players in highway construction the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA, www.hotmix.org), American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA, www.artba.org), Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA, www.liuna.org), and the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE, www.iuoe.org). On Nov. 18, 2003, the coalition joined forces with NIOSH and OSHA, signing an agreement targeted to reduce work zone accidents (www.osha.gov/dcsp/alliances/work_zone/work_zone.html).

This alliance of government, industry and labor will develop hazard awareness training and education programs, encourage participation in OSHA's compliance assistance and Voluntary Protection Programs, disseminate information and case studies that illustrate the value of reducing work zone injuries and fatalities, and share research findings with the construction industry so that safety efforts are based on the best-available science.

The alliance will build on existing good work to improve work zone safety, like the Roadway Safety Awareness Program. Produced under an OSHA grant by the Roadway Work Zone Safety and Health Coalition, this English- and Spanish-language Macromedia-based program provides an overview of common hazards in highway and road construction and simple prevention measures.

Most of the program's 13 modules focus on work zone-specific work and hazards flaggers, equipment operators, trenching and excavation, night work and more. But several modules address hazards common on most construction sites noise, health hazards, electrical hazards and emergency management.

The Roadway Safety Awareness Program includes several interesting, interactive hazard demonstrations. One helps workers visualize heavy equipment operator blind spots. Another demonstrates the effect of vehicle speed and road conditions on braking distance. The excavation cave-in module effectively destroys the macho myths that workers can outrun or survive a trench collapse.

The modules are well designed with excellent information. Adobe Acrobat files of each module may be printed for use in safety orientation training and toolbox safety meetings.

The Roadway Safety Awareness Program may be downloaded from the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse at wzsafety.tamu.edu. The clearinghouse, a joint effort of the ARTBA and the Texas Transportation Institute funded by the FHWA, provides one-stop shopping for accident statistics, safety standards and practices, educational materials and more.

Traffic control is an important work zone safety component. Vehicle drivers need clear notice of approaching roadwork that provides adequate time to slow down and follow lane changes.

The FHWA requirements for "temporary traffic control devices" in work zones are published in Section 6 of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD, available at mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov). The section sets standards and best practices for roadway markings, signs, traffic signals and other traffic control devices. The MUTCD also includes key worker safety elements including training, safety apparel, temporary traffic barriers, speed reduction, competent person and worker safety planning.

The FHWA publicizes work zone safety through the annual National Work Zone Awareness week. Supported by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (www.aashto.org) and the American Traffic Safety Services Association (www.atssa.com), National Work Zone Awareness Week highlights work zone safety issues through national and state programs.

This year's event is scheduled for the week of April 4th. Information is available at safety.fhwa.dot.gov/fourthlevel/pro_res_wzs_nwzaw.htm and www.atssa.com/pubinfo/nwzaw.htm.

Make a Difference

Each of us can make a difference. Publicize National Work Zone Awareness Week at your workplace. Download and distribute brochures and other safety information available from the FHWA, OSHA, NIOSH and National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse Web sites.

Do you work in the road construction industry? Then take advantage of the assistance available through the OSHA, NIOSH and Roadway Work Zone Safety and Health Coalition alliance. And don't forget to follow best practices for traffic control devices in the MUCTD.

Finally, take personal responsibility for preventing work zone accidents. How we drive has a direct impact on work zone safety. Training, education and promotional programs won't do the job unless each of us respects worker and public safety. Honor work zone traffic restrictions. Comply with posted work zone speed limits.

Remember, true happiness lies in the journey, not the destination. Make your journey a safe one.

Contributing Editor Michael Blotzer, MS, CIH, CSP, is an occupational hygiene and safety professional, writer and computer enthusiast who brakes for animals on the information superhighway. He can be reached by mail addressed to Occupational Hazards or electronic mail at [email protected]

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