Conquering the Dangers of Highway Work Zones

May 10, 2002
A roadway maintenance firm in Virginia, a road and bridge contractor in North Carolina and the New Jersey Department of Transportation offer three perspectives on comprehensive safety programs that protect motorists and workers.

Whether it's dealing with hazards as common as working within inches of motorists traveling at high speeds or as rare as finding what could be a pipe bomb, perhaps no occupational setting has a more diverse and complex set of perilous situations than highway work zones.

Most often, motorists have been the ones to pay the price with their lives. The number of people killed in motor vehicle crashes in work zones increased from 789 in 1995 to an all-time high of 1,093 in 2000, with more than 80 percent being vehicle occupants. In addition, more than 40,000 injuries occur in work zones annually.

Nearly 100 workers are killed and more than 20,000 are injured in work zones each year, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. About half of worker deaths are the result of traffic-related injuries, with the other half caused by being struck by construction vehicles and equipment inside the work zone.

While many hazards are similar, the type and scope of projects presents unusual, if not unique, dangers. Following are examples of how a roadway maintenance firm and a road and bridge contractor focus on their particular hazards through successful work zone safety programs. Also highlighted is the New Jersey Department of Transportation, which uses a partnership approach to improve work zone safety throughout the state.

Maintenance Program

Methods used to ensure safe conditions for workers and motorists on highway road projects need to be as varied as the hazards themselves. The challenge, according to John J. Meola, is that it can be hard to predict all hazards.

"We can deal with every recognized hazard out there," said Meola, CSP, ARM, safety manager for VMS, a Richmond, Va.-based company that operates and maintains a variety of roadways in several states. "The problem is with the ones that we don't recognize, which is why we need our workers to protect themselves at all times."

In March, one of the company's maintenance crews in Washington, D.C., found a highly suspicious article on a major thoroughfare. Proper training on hazardous materials allowed the employees to realize the item was potentially dangerous and to notify authorities, who investigated and ultimately destroyed the article, which looked like a pipe bomb but was not. "We want our people looking for unlabeled containers," Meola said. "They are trained that an unlabeled container is a suspicious article."

VMS has an OSHA recordable rate that has averaged 30 percent below the industry average the past four years and an experience modification rate of 0.76. It not only deals with a multitude of hazards, but also numerous regulations from OSHA construction standards to the Federal Highway Administration's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which provides for uniform design and setup of highway work zones.

Meola trains his company's some 200 highway workers, who undergo an eight-part safety training class with a final exam and then attend weekly and monthly safety meetings, to think of work zone safety as comprised of two elements. First, there is simply getting to and from the work zone safely. Second, there are the actual tasks going on in the work zone. Both carry their own set of safety requirements and awareness issues, he said.

Safety before the job. Teaching workers how to stop and get out of a truck on an interstate, for example, is "choreographed text from our playbook" of before-the-job safety, Meola said. "Our job involves stopping on the interstates. We are an anomaly in that environment. Stopping on an interstate has its own subset of safety factors."

VMS drivers, all with vehicles that contain strobes or beacons, are taught to use appropriate defensive measures when stopping. Meola has developed his own safety rules for this task because "OSHA does not tell you how to stop on an interstate."

When preparing to stop, Meola teaches drivers to check approaching traffic behind the truck. They should try to have no vehicle following closely. If that is not possible, they should ensure that other motorists see them slowing down. The drivers are instructed to leave themselves enough room, with a clear distance ahead, to see where they plan to stop and park.

While in the right lane, drivers should begin to slow to the minimum allowed speed on the highway (usually 40 mph on interstates), then merge into the breakdown or emergency lane. Once in the emergency lane, they should slow down more, then move into the grass area to stop.

VMS's drivers are trained to always pull off the road completely when possible, Meola said. "I tell them to try to not stop in the emergency lane. They are only inches from high-speed traffic. More important, people drive in the breakdown lane. There are many examples of horrific crashes that have occurred in the breakdown lane."

If working in a tight area where lines of sight are compromised, employees are expected to drop flares, put up signs and set up cones before the work zone to get motorists' attention. This should be done, Meola said, even if a maintenance crew is doing nothing more than picking up an item on the road surface.

Safety on the job. Once at the work site, workers usually will have minimal protection from traffic. Because most work zones for maintenance are short term and involve tasks such as repairing signs, filling potholes and picking up trash, workers usually do not have the luxury of installing concrete barriers used for long-term construction projects. Motorists also may not believe they need to slow down as much for a "temporary" work zone.

Because highway maintenance workers typically have less protection from traffic than construction crews, new employees for VMS are placed with an experienced crew. "We don't let them out of a truck until they are fully familiar with the safety issues of that work zone," Meola said.

All VMS employees are required to wear high-visibility apparel, including spray painting the back of work gloves with high-visibility paint.

Workers are trained to stay clear of moving machinery, to never assume the operator sees them and to avoid getting between vehicles or equipment. Struck-by and caught-between incidents are common in work zones, so Meola emphasizes to employees that they should always leave themselves a quick route of escape.

Because the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, VMS workers also are taught that if they need to cross the roadway, wait until there is a lull in the traffic and cross at a 90-degree angle to the traffic.

"We are under no illusions about the risks we face," he said. "Every time one of our technicians gets out of the truck on a highway, we're at risk. Our approach to safety engineering recognizes this, and we 'drill down' as far as necessary to reach the level of protection we need."

Construction Program

Training is the name of the game at 1,400-employee Rea Construction, a regional road and bridge contractor based in Charlotte, N.C. Because Rea has 70 work sites at any one time, the five-person safety department - led by Steve Hubbard, safety and loss control manager - counts on each crew member to be fully trained in work zone safety procedures. "Every person in the company is a safety rep. That's how we look at it," Hubbard said.

Rea Construction focuses its safety training on several areas:

Employee orientation. Training for every new employee begins at orientation and before stepping on the job site. Because the highest percentage of accidents happens to new employees, "we do training at the beginning to eliminate that high percentage," Hubbard said.

Orientation includes at least five hours on work zone safety basics. Even Rea's truck drivers go through the same safety orientation, which includes personal protective equipment (PPE), housekeeping, hazard communication, emergency and first aid procedures, and accident reporting. Workers also have safety training on specific job tasks, such as 30 to 45 minutes on trenching and excavation.

Rea's emphasis on comprehensive safety training up-front with every employee has an additional benefit - the company ends up with a more loyal group of workers and reduced turnover. "It shows people that we're interested in them as a person and that we are interested in their personal safety," Hubbard said.

After orientation, hourly workers receive ongoing safety training that includes weekly toolbox meetings, run by the supervisors, on general topics and specific work zone situations.

Driver training. Before hiring drivers, Rea checks their motor vehicle record to ensure that they are safe to put behind the wheel. A new driver may possess a driver's license, but it might be suspended. "That's one of the biggest failures a lot of companies make," Hubbard said of not making sure a driver's license is valid.

Once hired, drivers go through a defensive driving course. New operators of specialized trucks spend two weeks with a qualified driver who teaches them how to, among other things, get into and out of work zones safely.

Rea Construction is not just concerned with driver distractions among motorists. The company's equipment and truck operators on cell phones use hands-free devices, limit the amount of time spent on each call and have devices to record information instead of writing on a pad.

Supervisor training. Every supervisor takes OSHA's 10-hour course and a work zone supervisor course, and is trained on the use of PPE and high-visibility apparel. Supervisors also are trained to perform safety inspections the same way OSHA would, Hubbard said. Inspections, for example, cover issues such as first aid kits, housekeeping, trip hazards, fire prevention, electrical hazards, welding, cranes, fall protection, and hand and power tool maintenance.

Training on MUTCD requirements also is vital for supervisors so they know how to properly set up and take down work zones, and what to do on a daily basis to keep the work zone safe for motorists and workers. They are trained to patrol the work zone regularly to see that what was set up in the morning, such as signage, will be adequate for the middle of the day, or even an hour after a setup. It is common for wind and vehicles to knock over signs.

"A foreman needs to drive up and down the road and look at the work zone, not only from a trained person's perspective, but from a person's perspective who is not trained &endash; they have to look at it as the motorist sees it," Hubbard said.

Special safety staff training. Three of Hubbard's safety professionals spend about 75 percent of their time in work zones, primarily focusing on training and inspections. The three also are qualified as breath alcohol test technicians for post-accident testing. They undergo the same training and use the same equipment as state police, he said.

Because federal regulations require breath alcohol testing within two hours of any accident, and with much road work done at night, there often is no quick access to testing outside of the company's safety staff.

The testing also brings the safety professional on site to immediately begin investigating the accident. "The things we learn at an accident," Hubbard said, "are used in future training."


Partnership Pays Off in New Jersey

Motorists in New Jersey do not need to be told that traffic can be treacherous in the Garden State. For the rest of us, however, picture in your mind packing 8.4 million people (the ninth most populous state) into the fifth smallest state in land area. Add in highway construction, and the combination can be deadly.

The New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT), however, typically reports fewer than 10 deaths per year on state projects, with none in 2001. One reason for the state's low number of fatalities is a work zone safety partnership comprised of various organizations and agencies, said Anker L. Winther, a supervising engineer and head of the Office of Capital Project Safety for the New Jersey DOT.

"We all call upon each other as needed for different areas of safety," Winther said, adding the partnership works because all have a common goal of ensuring the safest work zones possible for motorists and workers.

Members of the 5-year-old partnership in addition to the state DOT are the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association (the state chapter of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association), OSHA, the New Jersey State Police, the Associated General Contractors of America, Rutgers University and two labor unions. They meet regularly to discuss various work zone safety issues.

One of the most successful partnership combinations has been between DOT and the state police. In 1994, the state police activated its construction unit, made up of 30 to 40 troopers dedicated to patrolling work zones throughout the state. They assist DOT's resident engineers in monitoring and enforcing approved traffic control plans for each project. If a safety concern is spotted, a trooper fills out a safety improvement report for the project's resident engineer.

Troopers assigned to the construction unit receive training in work zone safety and traffic control for highway construction areas. This training is combined with their experience in motor vehicle law enforcement. The unit members also provide work zone safety training for local police agencies and for other governmental and private organizations.

Winther said New Jersey's DOT also has received outstanding cooperation from contractors, which are required to have a written safety program before starting a project. The plan must be written by a qualified safety professional and is not a contract pay item. It must include safety responsibilities, emergency plans, training, implementation and discipline procedures.

Every DOT project also must have a traffic control coordinator (TCC), who usually performs that function full time as a contractor employee. The TCC is required to set up and maintain the project's traffic control plan. That person must pass a four-day training course.

To seek innovative ways to reach motorists, New Jersey has gone beyond obligatory warning signs and public awareness campaigns that encourage motorists to slow down and drive safely in work zones. For example, the state has sent work zone safety videos to all high schools with driver education programs.

Winther also noticed that the state's motor vehicle and commercial vehicle driver's manuals had little information on driving in work zones. He was able to have more valuable information added. "The idea is to get to the new motorists because it's hard to get to the ones who've been out there, because you don't have the same level of contact with them."

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