Unsafe summer: Highway crew deaths leave industry searching for solutions
A dump truck backed over a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation employee working on a state highway earlier this month, pinning his legs underneath of it until a construction crane lifted the vehicle off of the victim.
The man survived, and he’s lucky he did: An average of 120 construction workers die in roadway work zones every year, according to the Roadway Work Zone Safety and Health Partners Alliance, a consortium of contractor associations, labor unions, safety organizations and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Many of those deaths occur during the busy summer highway construction season.
Nearly half of the fatal accidents are “internal”; that is, a road worker dies in a mishap involving on-the-job equipment or colleagues, according to Dean McKenzie, deputy director of OSHA’s Directorate of Construction. The others are mostly caused by motorists who fail to slow down when approaching the work zone.
And all of those deaths are preventable, McKenzie told Construction Dive. “It’s typically not a single thing that went wrong; it’s a series of missteps that lead to one of these incidents. It’s just imperative that employers consider this and do their hazard analysis and look at what could go wrong.”
In fact, McKenzie noted, contractors have much more control over the accidents their crews instigate than on the ones passing drivers cause.
“The errant vehicle on the highway is a big problem,” he said, “but the employer has very little he can do about that, except for putting up Jersey barriers.”
The cause of the PennDOT accident has not been released, but McKenzie pointed to two commonly overlooked precautions that he said construction employers should take before sending crews onto bridges and highways.
First, he said, a surprising number of crew members die while crossing a street to reach a work site from a designated parking area.
"Employees who park on a median strip and try to cross five lanes of traffic? We lose a couple a year that way,” he said.
He suggested that contractors set up a remote parking area and then truck employees to the work zone along with the equipment they need for the day.
Second, the deputy director said, any job-site vehicle that backs up should be equipped not only with a back-up alarm — which has become so common in work zones that it’s little more than “an ambient drone” — but with back-up cameras and different alarms indicating different directions.
According to the Alliance, the back-up alarm was not functioning on approximately one-third of trucks that backed over and killed construction workers in roadway work zones between 2003 and 2010.
“They need to control the traffic of their own equipment,” McKenzie said.
The Alliance notes that 46% of workers who die in construction zones are struck by vehicles, either those belonging to the job or to passing drivers. That includes the one in 10 workers who are killed by oncoming traffic while flagging or performing traffic control duties.
Other fatalities are commonly caused by undefined “incidents” that occur on the highway or even off-road; by objects that come into contact with the victim; by falls; by trench collapses; and by contact with electric current.
The U.S. Department of Transportation and OSHA have rules for setting up work zones so that passing traffic will not interfere with the job site or injure the outdoor workers.
The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices details the kinds of traffic control devices — like flashing signs, bright orange cones and barrels, special traffic signals and highway markings — that contractors and the government agencies that hire them must place on roads, highways and bridges. The standards outline where to place those traffic-management tools so they prevent accidents.
OSHA investigates every work zone death and can levy severe penalties — including fines, suspensions and even referrals to the U.S. Department of justice for criminal prosecution — if the investigators determine the fatality was caused by willful negligence.
Still, McKenzie advises contractors or others responsible for work zone safety to go beyond federal requirements to protect workers who are exposed to passing traffic and on-site hazards
Some construction firms, for example, dedicate a full-time safety monitor who does nothing but traffic control during the duration of the job, he said. Even those who don’t, however, should constantly check the condition of those traffic control devices, McKenzie advised.
Signs, cones and tapers can get knocked around by traffic, rain and wind, he noted. “You can’t set [them] up and plan on leaving them that way for a week while you repave a few miles of road. Somebody’s got to drive that every couple of hours to make sure the cones are still in place.”
He added: “You get what you inspect, not what you expect. If you’re doing a project, [workers] are moving down the road. The work is moving. It’s a constantly changing environment.”
Other contractors have hired police officers to patrol the area around their work zones with red and blue lights flashing — a presence that slows down drivers and allows the officers to quickly respond when an accident occurs, alleviating traffic backups.
Construction workers, of course, are not the only people who die in roadway work zones.
Almost 600 people died when they crashed into work zones in 2013, according to the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse, which is managed by the American Road and Builders Association and the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials. That’s a considerable improvement from 10 years earlier, when traffic accident-related fatalities in construction and maintenance work zones reached a peak of 1,095.
Distracted driving has been blamed for a significant number of the accidents. But just the presence of construction on a highway can heighten the chances of a crash. In Ohio, a system that monitors work-zone crashes in real time revealed that accidents are up to 70% more likely to occur near a construction zone than elsewhere.
Some states have cracked down on drivers who enter work zones, especially if they crash and injure or kill workers or other motorists.
Pennsylvania is considering placing speed cameras at work zones on busy interstate highways as a $2.3 billion transportation law increases highway construction statewide. Speed-camera violations would cost motorists $100 per ticket.
A similar program in Maryland has reduced speeding. Five years ago, 7% of drivers sped 12 miles per hour over the posted speed limit; in 2015, 1% of drivers caught on camera go that fast.
A separate Pennsylvania proposal would fine a driver who kills a worker in construction zone up to $10,000.
Contractors who keep their workers safe — and alive — on the job do more than comply with the law and protect human lives, McKenzie said. They reduce turnover.
“Roadway work zone work is not easy work,” he said. “It’s hot, loud, dusty and dirty.” The result: “Employee turnover in that market sector is significant.”
If contractors want to keep their well-trained employees from finding easier work elsewhere, he advises: “Provide a safe workplace, where they know they’re valued and appreciated. People are a whole lot more likely to stay.”