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Danger from all directions

Education, awareness can help prevent work zone fatalities

April 1, 2013

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This was the slogan for Pennsylvania’s 2012 National Work Zone Awareness Week campaign. It summarizes the vulnerability of workers in road construction work zones, where hazards come from all directions.

“It is a work process that is continually moving and changing, which makes it more dangerous than an assembly line, for instance,” said David E. Fosbroke, statistician for the NIOSH Division of Safety Research, Surveillance and Field Investigations Branch. “Additionally, workers on the ground are working with large pieces of equipment.”

Work zones are a common sight throughout the nation as roadways continue to age and need repair, said James Baron, director of communications and public relations for the American Traffic Safety Services Association, a Fredericksburg, VA-based trade association that represents the traffic control and roadway safety industry.

“Our infrastructure is very old,” Baron said. “It requires constant maintenance and upgrades, safety devices to be placed on roads such as rumble strips and guardrails. In order to install that, it requires work zones.”

Inside the work zone

According to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 119 fatal occupational injuries occurred in work zones in 2011. The majority of these fatalities were attributed to work zone vehicles, machines or equipment striking a worker. Other causes of fatalities within work zones included slips, trips and falls and being caught between equipment.

High noise levels in work zones can contribute to injuries and fatalities, said Michael P. Doner, vice president and co-owner of Flagger Force, a Middletown, PA-based provider of trained flaggers and other traffic-control services. Contributing to the noisy environment, Doner said, are high quantities of large trailers and other equipment that sound can bounce off.

Noise contributes to one of the most common causes of occupational work zone fatalities – when a truck or other vehicle backs into an unsuspecting worker. Doner said alarms designed to alert workers to equipment backing sometimes blend into the other work zone noises, or workers become too accustomed to hearing the alarms.

“You hear the alarm every day, all day long, and it becomes ambient noise for you,” he said. “Also, you cannot put ear protection on employees in work zones because they need to know what occurs 360 degrees around them.”

To help address backover incidents, as well as other work zone safety hazards, companies should develop internal traffic control plans, said Bradley M. Sant, senior vice president of safety and education for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association in Washington. Establishing a traffic flow of onsite equipment and worker-free zones can help minimize the amount of backing up at a site, Sant said. He also suggested companies provide workers with diagrams of work zone areas that may contain blind spots.

Work zone planners soon may have technology other than alarm systems at their disposal to help prevent backovers, Fosbroke said. He referenced recent research on sensors that could track human movement and automatically stop equipment in work zones. Advanced camera and mirror systems that can provide the operator a better view of behind the vehicle or equipment also are in development, he said.

(For more on backovers, see “Reducing backover incidents,” Safety+Health, June 2012.)

Protection from motorists

“With a work zone, the hazards can actually come to you,” Doner said, referring to injuries and fatalities caused by motorists in work zones – another major cause of work zone fatalities.

One method for protecting workers from oncoming motorists is the use of concrete barriers to physically separate the work zone from traffic. However, Sant said that although the barriers provide physical protection for workers, they may not be the safest option for every work zone. Depending on certain configurations, they may prevent workers from being able to enter or exit the work zone safely. Also, he said, workers installing the barriers are exposed to open traffic, so if the project will not last long, a concrete barrier may not be appropriate.

State transportation agencies may mandate use of concrete barriers based on multiple factors. These include the length of a project, the speed of traffic near a work zone and if workers must operate close to a traffic lane. They also typically have been required for projects in which workers have no means of escape from an oncoming motorist, such as on bridges or inside tunnels.

However, a provision in MAP-21, the surface transportation funding bill signed into law in July 2012, requires states to more aggressively analyze when concrete barriers should be used. This is in part because concrete barriers are hazards to oncoming motorists, Sant said, especially if they are configured improperly and create blunt crashing hazards.

“How do you balance the safety of the motorist with the safety of the workers?” Sant said. “While we strongly encourage the use of concrete barriers when applicable, that will not always be feasible and will not always be the safest situation.”

When they have the option, employers should consider other methods of protecting workers from motorists, Fosbroke said. This may include using devices such as cones or drums. These may not provide as much physical protection as concrete barriers, Sant said, but they can guide motorists away from vulnerable workers.

Non-barrier measures include establishing work zone exit and entry points for incoming workers that are situated away from traffic. Work zone planners also can use temporary traffic control signs, such as radar-active changeable message signs, that warn motorists to slow down near work zones and to not follow trucks entering a work zone.

Compliance standards

In addition to the hazards unique to roadways, road construction work zones contain many of the same worker safety hazards as building construction sites. Thus, to establish the minimum level of safety in work zones, safety professionals must ensure compliance with regulations from both OSHA and the Federal Highway Administration.

FHWA’s “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices” for roadway traffic standards provides regulations for establishing work zone areas that are well-lit for workers performing nighttime work, while also reducing or eliminating glare for oncoming motorists.

All workers exposed to oncoming traffic should wear high-visibility fluorescent and retroreflective apparel so they are visible up to a minimum distance of 1,000 feet. Apparel should comply with American National Standards Institute standard performance Class 2 or 3, and should be a color such as yellow-green that contrasts with the traffic control devices in the work zone to help drivers detect workers.

Education and public awareness

Another key aspect to improving the safety of work zones is providing adequate training – something that was not done enough prior to 10 or so years ago, Sant said.

The Work Zone Safety Grant Program, enacted as part of a 2005 transportation funding bill and re-enacted as part of MAP-21, established grant funding to develop and implement occupational work zone safety training. The grant funding also provides guidance materials such as pamphlets and work zone diagrams to companies and enforcement agencies.

However, a “huge need” for training still exists, according to Laura Perrotta, director of government relations for the American Traffic Safety Services Association. In certain states, Perrotta said, contractors and work zone companies operate on such tight budgets that they cannot provide hands-on training to workers without federal grant assistance. MAP-21 includes new funding available for continued or new training programs.

Additionally, public awareness campaigns such as National Work Zone Awareness Week are essential for educating the public on the vulnerability of workers in work zones, Perrotta said. She attributes the campaign, which began annually in 1999, with the gradual decrease in occupational work zone fatalities and motorists killed in work zone-related crashes over the past decade.

The 2013 National Work Zone Awareness Week kick-off event is scheduled for April 16 in Washington. According to FHWA, the 2013 theme – “Work Zone Safety: We’re All in This Together” – is intended to highlight how workers, work zone planners, motorists, law enforcement and emergency response personnel can work together to further reduce the risk of injury and fatalities in work zones.

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