The most lethal threat to highway zone construction workers is the possibility they will be struck, either by a passing car or construction vehicle. In 2017, 132 individuals working in highway construction zones were killed in this way, reported the Federal Highway Administration. With the exception of 2012 and 2016, during which 133 and 143 workers, respectively, were killed in highway zone crashes, 2017 saw the highest number of fatalities in a decade.
Ensuring safety in a highway work zone, said Mark Troxell, vice president of safety services at national insurance broker Graham Co., boils down to extensive preplanning, recognizing the dangers of traffic and expecting the unexpected. Graham assists its clients in developing and implementing safety programs.
Part of a thorough safety planning process, he said, is getting feedback from project managers, superintendents and foremen to understand the safety issues they believe they face on resurfacing, bridge and other highway jobs. The flipside is letting them know what threats they can expect as well. “It’s a two-way conversation,” Troxell said.
Technology, said John Thurman of Gadzoom, which offers a cloud-based app that lets contractors create their own activity hazard analysis, accident prevention and other plans, has changed the way these documents are written and disseminated to members of the crew.
“Most accidents in construction come from a lack of training or information combined with a series of small mistakes that snowball into a larger incident,” Thurman said. “The ease with which technology can make information and knowledge available provides the ability for construction workers to better understand and manage risks.”
Online safety training programs, he said, also better connect all employees, in the field and the office, with vital safety information. “By making safety information easier to access, he said, [the odds of] employees taking ownership in their own safety and that of their coworkers greatly increases."
The general public’s seeming lack of awareness of how to safely move through a highway work zone, Troxell said, contributes to the danger for workers, especially the distracted drivers who read the newspaper, apply makeup, send and receive texts and even brush their teeth while driving past road workers.
Many drivers speed through work zones too, Troxell said. If they don’t crash through barriers or make direct contact with workers, they sometimes hit cones or other temporary traffic control features, which can take flight and injure someone.
However, not only do work crews have to worry about the general public but about construction vehicles as well. “We always have a concern of somebody being backed over or run over completely,” Troxell said.
To limit the chance of injury, Troxell’s strategic plan for safety includes:
1. Creating a traffic control plan
Traffic control plans for use during highway construction are usually dictated by the state, Troxell said, but if a project uses federal funds, then the plan has to abide by the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which lays out specific measures crews need to take during surface transportation construction projects. These regulations are meant to protect both the traveling public and workers.
The four critical areas that need a plan, according to the MUTCD, are advance areas in which drivers are first alerted to construction ahead; transition areas like lane closures; activity areas where construction is actually taking place and termination areas just past the construction zone.
Once a plan is established, then crews need to stick to it, Troxell said. Daily inspections are a must to make sure that controls like cones and barrels haven’t been pushed into the roadway and that signage is operating and is displaying the correct messaging. Crews need to pay special attention when new traffic patterns are introduced. “That’s the time when we believe [client companies] have an increased potential for incidents on their projects,” he said.
2. Asking for assistance from local law enforcement
However, the availability of local or state police is often limited, he said. Some crews position unmanned police vehicles with flashing lights through the work zone, but, Troxell said, all it takes is one trucker who is able to see that there is no officer in the vehicle, and word gets out. “Everybody knows it’s a dummy car,” he said.
3. Using traditional protective measures
Barriers, cones, barrels and channelizers are important, and so is high-visibility clothing for all workers. Lighting should be installed for night work, but, Troxell said, crews must be careful not to blind drivers in the process.
4. Regulating the use of cell phones
Some of Graham’s clients, Troxell said, ban the use of personal mobile devices on their highway construction sites with the exception of designated safe areas. “They want their employees to be fully engaged,” he said, “and to be able to hear what is going on around them.”
5. Separating material storage and parking areas from the worksite
The fewer vehicles moving through the work site, the better, Troxell said. Stacks or piles of materials are a hazard as well because they can potentially block a truck or equipment driver’s view of workers or other construction activity.
When Balfour Beatty was looking for a way to move material from borrow pits near two highway projects in North Carolina, it also discovered a way to keep workers on both projects safer. The company designed conveyor belts to move the material, which limited the number of dump trucks needed for the project. The conveyors take material across two major highways, which translates to a significant reduction in trucks on the road. “By using conveyors,” said Mark Johnnie, vice president and southeast region manager at Balfour Beatty, “we are taking literally thousands of truckloads off of the public highways. There’s also not interface between the public and our earth-moving operations, and that’s huge.”
And, he said, because using conveyors is cutting the number of truckloads in half, that means fewer vehicles on site. “That has distinct safety implications for our employees,” Johnnie said.
Considering headlines as recent as yesterday such as Man struck, killed by dump truck in Hermosa, that's as vital as ever.
6. Training crews on navigating safely in the same space as heavy equipment
Workers, Troxell said, need to be trained on how to safely approach running pieces of equipment and vehicles, listen for the warning sounds they make when they’re backing up and just generally take care to stay out of the path of anything that can injure them. Operators and drivers, on the other hand, must learn to use their mirrors and onboard cameras, not exceed jobsite speed limits and constantly be on the lookout for workers on foot.
This is where technology in the form of telematics can help, said Michael Bloom, director of product management, construction and analytics at Teletrac Navman.
Telematics is the term to describe the systems used to monitor vehicles, and, for heavy equipment on construction sites, Bloom said, it provides insight into operator behavior. GPS tracking can be set up to notify managers — in real time — if a driver is speeding, brakes suddenly or exhibits other dangerous driving patterns, giving supervisors a chance to stop the behavior and take advantage of a teachable moment.
This sort of fleet tracking and management can also include geofencing, which draws a digital boundary around a specific area using signals from devices, Bloom said. “It’s essentially setting invisible boundaries to keep construction equipment or vehicles in or out of a defined area,” he said. “In highway zones, with fast-moving traffic and limited work areas, it’s even more important to monitor the location and speed of heavy equipment or vehicles.” Again, the system can be set up so that managers are notified if there is a breach of a speed threshold or another restriction.
7. Avoiding complacency
Individuals who have been working in highway construction for long periods of time can become immune to the dangers, Troxell said, and a bit too comfortable with all the sights and sounds. “To me,” he said, “complacency is one of the [top] killers in construction.”
Daily meetings, huddles or toolbox talks at the beginning of each day and any time there is a task change on the job can help increase awareness, he said, and help create a culture that makes safety everyone’s responsibility.
“The key is that safety just isn't a foremen or superintendent's job,” Troxell said. “It's everybody's job.”