Danger from Both Directions

Road construction workers face life-threatening hazards from inside and outside the "hot zone." To help reduce fatalities, companies should take steps to guard their employees from moving equipment and traffic.

Nearly 500 workers were killed in road construction and maintenance work zones between 1992 and 1998, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Why do these fatalities continue to occur, and what is the industry doing to lower the risk?

To answer this, first we have to acknowledge that there are two distinct hazards that workers face. The first is from outside the work zone. Passing motorists kill and injure employees building and maintaining our highways at an alarming rate.

Just as alarming is the number of workers killed and injured by other employees inside the work zone. Employees struck by construction vehicles operated by their friends and co-workers account for far too many work-related fatalities (see "Fatal Facts" on page C8).

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century authorized approximately $80 billion for highway and bridge construction between 1998 and 2003. With this level of funding, it is likely that even more workers will be employed in road construction and maintenance. Because most of the construction will be the rehabilitation of existing highways and not new construction, most of the workers will be exposed to hazards from the motoring public as well as the hazards within the work zone.

Hazards Inside the Work Zone

No one has the exact statistics on how many workers are killed and injured by fellow workers inside the work zone, but we know that the hazards are real and that fatalities occur. Often, it is something as simple as a truck driver who gets out of his vehicle while waiting to dump his load and is struck by another driver cueing up his vehicle.

In 1990, a dump truck struck a ground guide when he bent over to pick up a rock in the roadway. The worker survived. When asked why he did not signal the driver to stop prior to picking up the rock, the worker answered that the driver knew he was back there. When the driver was asked why he continued to back up despite losing sight of his ground guide, he answered that the ground guide knew he was backing up and knew to stay out of his way.

Although this is an extreme example of carelessness, the attitude of someone else being responsible for our safety may be a cause for injury. Another potential cause is the schedule and pressures from the driving community to keep roads open during work and to get it done quickly.

Recommendations from a recent NIOSH publication, Building Safer Highway Work Zones: Measures To Prevent Worker Injuries From Vehicles And Equipment, includes developing an internal traffic control plan (ITCP). Just like a plan to control the traffic of the motoring public, design an internal plan to limit the hazards of the vehicles operating within the work zone.

Some highway work zones have dozens of vehicles moving earth, delivering materials and paving the road bed. Because many of these vehicles have obstructed views, it is often difficult for the operator to see a worker nearby.

A few of the elements of an ITCP:

  • Communication methods for workers on foot with equipment operators,
  • Communication methods for equipment operators with other operators,
  • Traffic movement patterns with the work zone, and
  • A system to report close calls.

Because communication is such a critical element in preventing injuries within the work zone, it can result in a significant time commitment between the general contractor, subcontractors and the sponsoring transportation department. Committing to the time needed and making it a part of the site safety and health program must become integral to the overall blueprint for the project to prevent injuries and fatalities.

Workers should assume they cannot be seen and that they are responsible for their safety when working inside a work zone. Controlling the direction and flow of the vehicles and equipment can lessen the chance of injury and make it easier for workers to do their jobs safely.

This effort should be in addition to standard safety practices that may not always be followed on the jobsite. Having a spotter or ground guide who directs vehicles when the rear view is restricted can prevent injuries, but only if everyone knows their responsibilities and follows safe work practices.

Using backup alarms that are loud enough for workers to hear them is only useful if workers have not "tuned out" the alarms. Using different alarm noises and increasing awareness to their importance can help employees notice a vehicle that is dangerously close.

Hazards Outside the Work Zone

Imagine doing your job while vehicles speed by, sometimes in excess of 55 mph, with only an orange cone as protection. Increased visibility of workers and equipment to the motoring public is one of the keys to decreasing worker fatalities in the work zone.

Approved in 1999, with the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) serving as secretariat, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard for high-visibility apparel, ANSI/ISEA 107, is designed to improve worker visibility specifications for the minimum amount of retroreflective materials, the color of the materials and its placement on personal protective equipment (PPE). The increased visibility is meant to protect workers in any light condition by day and under the illumination of headlights in the dark.

In some countries, workers are protected with different-colored, high-visibility materials. The often-used fluorescent green is such a remarkably different color it can make workers more obvious. NIOSH recommends using different colors of protective materials to ensure that workers do not blend into the background of the landscape and surrounding foliage, or even all the other orange equipment and materials on site.

The coverage of PPE can also improve worker visibility. Using traffic vests and shirts that do not meet the ANSI standard and that are less visible when workers are turned to their sides can make it hard for the motorist to see workers. Employers should only use PPE that is in good condition, with the color and reflectivity still effective and visible from all sides.

Finally, the public has some responsibility in protecting workers. Slowing down in the work zone as required by law is just the beginning. The motoring public needs to begin seeing the highway worker as the family member who will be missed if he or she is killed on the job.

Recently, the Illinois Department of Transportation began a two-tiered effort to control work zone fatalities. The fines for speeding in work zones were doubled to $300. More important was the signing of Scott's Law. Named after Chicago firefighter Scott Gillen, this law calls for $10,000 fines and suspension of licenses if someone is involved in a work zone accident that kills or injures a state highway worker, police officer or firefighter.

In addition, new signs notifying motorists of upcoming work zones have been created and offer a new twist. The signs are in a child's handwriting. One reads, "Please slow down. My mommy works here. Thanks, Bobby." The other reads, "Please slow down. My daddy works here. Thanks, Abbi." Other states are trying similar signage to improve the motoring public's understanding of what is at stake.

In July, the Associated General Contractors of America sponsored the Highway Work Zone Safety Summit in Washington. Summit participants developed a national strategy to reduce the unacceptably high number of deaths, injuries and accidents in highway work zones. One of the recommendations to improve safety for employees and the motoring public was to consider closing roads as a first option when planning construction activities. This action might seem extreme to the public but may prevent highway worker deaths.

The industry needs a lot more improvement to reduce the risk of working in the hot zone, but changes in PPE and the way vehicles are operated inside a work zone is a start. That, coupled with constant diligence toward traffic controls, can reduce the number of workers killed each year, even with the increase in exposure.

Contributing editor Regina McMichael, CSP, is a principal in Aurus Safety Management, Clemson, S.C. She can be reached at (864) 624-9820 or at [email protected]

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