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Lots of safety

Take steps to keep parking areas hazard-free

August 1, 2009

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KEY POINTS
  • The parking lot should be treated the same as any other roadway or intersection, experts say.
  • Good design can prevent many potential safety problems in parking lots.
  • Pedestrians should be cautious and aware of their surroundings when walking through a parking lot.

It's the end of a long day, and the only thing your employees are thinking about is getting into their vehicles and going home. But between the company door and the road home, employees first must travel through the parking lot.

“Generally, parking lots are designed for cars and trucks, and not for pedestrians to walk across,” said James Solomon, program development and training director for the National Safety Council’s Driver and Roadway Safety Department.

Between 1993 and 2002, 2,057 work-related deaths on company parking lots were recorded, according to a study published in the National Safety Council’s Journal of Safety Research (Vol. 39, No. 1). However, both employers and employees can take steps to help keep your facility’s parking areas safe.

Best design

The first step to reducing hazards in a parking lot is through good design. According to the National Safety Council, lots should be enclosed by either a curb or fence and have well-marked entrances and exits. Entrances and exits should be placed so they favor right-hand turns, are away from heavily traveled roadways and are well illuminated.

When driving, employees should consider parking lots no different than the streets they take to get to work. Like streets, parking lots have intersections, speed limits and pedestrians. As such, every lot should have clear lane markings and signage to ensure drivers are going the right way. At Houston-based Waste Management Inc., garbage truck drivers undergo training that teaches them to treat all parking lots and alleys the same as a street and follow the rules of the road. “Every driveway, every alley, every parking lot [drivers go through] is potentially an intersection,” said Billy Martin, WMI’s senior director of safety operations.

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All markings in parking lots should use the correct colors. White dashes signify a separation between two lanes for the same direction; yellow dashes or a solid yellow line separate traffic flowing in opposite directions. Any place that may confuse drivers should have arrows or signs to guide them, Solomon said.

If drivers treat pavement markings and signage inside a parking lot in the same manner as they would on a roadway, they won’t cut across parking stall markings and catch pedestrians off guard. “[Pedestrians] do not expect you to be coming from a 45-degree angle,” Solomon warned.

Additionally, a driver who cuts across lane markings and collides with another vehicle or person likely would be held accountable for disobeying markings, Solomon said.

Some employees may choose alternative modes of transportation to get to work. Facility parking lots should have places to park motorcycles and bicycles. The areas should be clearly marked and easy to find, Solomon said, and bicyclists should be reminded that they are expected to follow the rules of the road when in a parking lot.

Many workers might be surprised to learn that local law enforcement may have jurisdiction in a parking lot, according to Solomon. Often­times, local police will ask a company for permission to enforce laws on the company’s grounds. If a company agrees, officers can come onto a lot and issue citations. If the company does not agree, it has to file with its insurance company and may face higher liability when incidents in parking lots occur, Solomon said.

Slow down

Drivers should treat a parking lot like any other street; however, they should not drive 25 or 30 mph down an aisle, as they would a local roadway. The average safe speed for parking lot driving is between 5 and 10 mph, according to Solomon. Anything faster could be fatal for a pedestrian in a collision. “Parking lots are designed for low speed,” Solomon said.

WMI employees are instructed to drive for current conditions, according to Martin. If managers see a driver traveling too fast for the conditions in a parking lot, he or she could be penalized. “Speed is our enemy,” Martin said. “There is no need to get in a hurry.”

Similar to traveling on a roadway, drivers should reduce speeds in bad weather. Although indoor and covered parking facilities are not exposed to the elements, they present their own problems that require slower driving. Inside a covered facility, rain and other precipitation are unable to wash away vehicle fluids that could make the surface slick, Solomon said. As a result, employees should be much more cautious when driving vehicles in such a facility.

Other problems that exist with garages are low clearance and tight spaces. Normally, garages have less clearance on both sides of the vehicle and above, according to Solomon. Additionally, some older garages still in use were not built for the larger vehicles of today, such as sport utility vehicles.

Parking your car

When in a parking lot, employees should always avoid driving in reverse. If backing up is unavoidable, it should be done on arrival rather than on departure. Backing up on arrival is less risky because it offers the driver a current view of the area he or she is preparing to back into, Solomon said.

However, be careful: In some states and municipalities, it is illegal to back into a stall because law enforcement officers will not be able to see the rear license plate or because of other ordinances. Check with your local municipality to find out what is legal where you live.

If the parking stall is painted at a 90-degree angle from traffic, find an area that allows you to drive through the first stall and into the second to face out. This allows employees to drive forward into a stall and exit out of it going forward as well, completely avoiding the need to back up.

However, some stalls are painted at less than a 90-degree angle. Many times, Solomon said, the aisles between these stalls are one-way and employees are required to pull forward and then back out to leave. But if the aisle is wide enough to allow traffic to flow in both directions, driving through the first stall into a second to face out is acceptable.

In general, Solomon recommended not trying to park too close to a facility’s entrance. The closest spots are the ones most valued by other drivers and, thus, present heavier traffic. Likewise, in a parking garage, park closer to the top level.

Pedestrian traffic

Safety is not limited to drivers. An injury from a slip on the parking lot pavement can be an OSHA recordable incident. During the winter, many companies may put down salt on sidewalks or in the parking lot, but pedestrians should not assume the pavement is slip-free.

Solomon advises pedestrians walking to their vehicles in wet weather to “walk like a penguin.” Do not shuffle or slide feet, he said. Instead place one foot slowly down, make sure it won’t slip, and then place weight on it.

Pedestrians also need to treat the parking lot as they would a street or intersection. After parking a vehicle, employees should walk down the lot’s aisles (against traffic) instead of walking across several lanes of traffic and between vehicles parked in stalls, which could obscure them from motorists.

To encourage this, parking lots should be designed so aisles are perpendicular to the entrance, the National Safety Council advises. Also, parking lots should have clearly marked crosswalks for pedestrians.

Solomon urges workers who are walking to their vehicles to remember how hard it can be for drivers to see pedestrians. Drivers at WMI are warned that pedestrians can seemingly disappear out of view without the driver realizing it. To counter this, Martin said drivers are taught the distance an adult or running child can cover in a few seconds. A person can quickly go from not being in view to being right behind a vehicle or in its blind spot, he said.

Some facilities may have a side or back entrance that may host a loading dock or dumpster area. In general, pedestrians should avoid these areas altogether, Solomon said. However, if that is not possible, employees who use these entrances should walk swiftly through them without stopping to talk – keeping an eye out for any vehicle traffic.

For loading docks, employers should have a designated area for vehicles to use when backing up that is off limits for pedestrians. And when garbage trucks come to haul off the trash from the dumpsters, employees should stay out of the area, Solomon said – a dumpster could drop unexpectedly and injure pedestrians.

At some facilities, special precautions may need to be taken. WMI maintains a large fleet of garbage trucks, so parking lots take up a large portion of the company’s various facilities. Pedestrians at WMI are taught that whenever they walk onto a lot where garbage trucks park and drive, they must be wearing high-visibility apparel. These areas are clearly marked, Martin said, and there are no exceptions.

Martin said pedestrians and drivers alike need to keep the same advice in mind while in a parking lot: “Don’t always assume they see you when you see them.”

Safety, Solomon said, is something that must be extended from the inside of the facility all the way to the parking lot and street. “Every employer must choose to make the entrance of the work area and the exit of the work area as safe as the work area itself is,” he said.

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