Training, Education, Proper Work Practices Key to Increasing Work Zone Safety

April 1, 2004
Recognizing that roadway construction is one of the most hazardous occupations, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) says that through education, training and proper work practices, roadway work zone accidents and injuries for workers and motorists can be reduced, an especially timely message since National Work Zone Awareness Week is April 4-10.

"With warmer weather comes increased road and bridge construction work," says ASSE President James "Skipper" Kendrick, CSP. "Motorists, contractors and workers need to be aware of the risks we all face at roadway work zones and work together to reduce accidents, especially during April's National Work Zone Awareness week."

ASSE member George Wolff, CSP, writes in his 'Work Zone Safety/Traffic Control Chapter' in the new ASSE Construction Safety Management and Engineering Book, that the number of incidents, fatalities and injuries related to work zones is on the rise. More than 1,100 men, women and children are killed in roadway work zones annually, with most of those fatalities being motorists. And with motorists, on average, encountering a work zone every 40- 50 miles, the work zone accident risk increases.

To assist employers and workers on increasing roadway work zone safety, Wolff recommends they be aware of the many types of worker hazards and exposures to risk; the need for a temporary traffic control work zone; setting up an advance work zone warning area and transition area; the hazards of installing, modifying, and removing work zones; how to best equip a flag person; driver awareness; and liability and litigation.

Wolff warns that in addition to the risk from impaired drivers, who at night will focus on and drive toward the light in a work zone area creating a safety risk, roadway construction workers face a multitude of hazards which include being struck or caught between equipment, injury from overuse and poor body conditions, and environmental exposures to heat, cold and sun.

Wolff recommends that contractors, workers and motorists alike be aware of these four basic elements of safety of a temporary traffic control work zone:

  • Advance warning, which often consists of three signs that advise, warn and instruct the motorist of a roadway work zone;
  • The transition, or taper, that moves traffic from one lane to another;
  • The activity area that consists of the optional longitudinal buffer (safety space) and the work zone; and
  • The termination, or downstream taper, that provides the motorist a clear path back to the lane from which he or she was diverted.

Wolff recommends having a plan that outlines the traffic controls that will be included throughout the work zone and what changes will be needed during the changing process of construction. A drawing of the site, the number and type of traffic control devices to be used, and lists or illustrations of any special personnel requirements such as flag-person stations or the use of uniformed traffic control or law enforcement are suggested.

A Colorado task force of ASSE members, including Wolff, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), OSHA, the Colorado Contractors Association (CCA) and contractor representatives has created a roadway construction work zone best practices guide soon to be available from the CDOT Web site.

As for flaggers in roadway work zones, the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD, published by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, recommends they be used only when other methods are not adequate to protect motorists or workers, such as on one-lane roads, in two-way traffic, when slowing traffic through limited-sight situations when or stopping traffic where a haul road crosses traveled lanes or where equipment must be moved into or out of a work zone.

To minimize exposure to injury, flaggers should always be alert, wear proper clothing, always face the traffic, and stand in the proper location with two means of quick departure. A recent American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard identifies three categories of clothing for roadway work based on speed and traffic volume of the roadway. The standard calls for more body area covered by retro-reflective material taking into account day operations versus night operations and flat light or limited- sight situations such as fog, rain or snow. High-speed operations at night require retro-reflectorized materials on hard hats, jackets and pants.

With motorists, Wolff notes, although there has been continued efforts throughout the country to create a consistent and positive approach to the use of work zone devices and changeable message boards to increase safety, we have been remiss in continuing to require formal driver training, stringent testing and enforcement.

"Drivers demonstrate great variability in experience, physical ability and attitude, such as aggressive drivers and road rage, increasing the risk for the road construction worker," Wolff states." To increase safety, the roadway work zone must be set up with geometrics that allow a driver with limited experience who may be pulling a 30-foot camper with a 20-foot truck to get through the zone without incident.

"When it comes to roadway work zone safety," Wolff states, "controlling known hazards to workers and developing systems and a work environment where the employees will communicate hazards they see on the site, or correct them without being instructed to do so and creating peer pressure to work safely, serves as a road map to success."

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