Injury prevention

Avoiding parking lot perils

Safety in lots, garages takes a collaborative effort

Images: Scott Nolen and Mike Sharkey

Parking areas are fraught with factors that make them danger zones: the presence of pedestrians; the relaxed attitudes of drivers who no longer are in traffic; blind spots and reduced sightlines because of parked vehicles; delivery trucks; more frequent turning; and, of course, distracted drivers and pedestrians.

In 2016, the National Safety Council polled nearly 2,500 drivers about their attitudes toward distracted driving. Of those, 67 percent of adult drivers said they felt at risk from other drivers who are distracted by technology, and 25 percent said they put themselves or others at risk because of their own use of technology while driving. But for every variety of distraction – phone calls, texting, grooming, use of social media, etc. – both groups showed a much higher likelihood of technology use in parking lots than on the highway or surface streets.

Simply put, people feel as though they can let their guards down in parking lots.

“Parking lots are an afterthought to a lot of people,” said James A. Solomon, director of Defensive Driving Program Development and Training at NSC.

They also are part of the employer’s premises, according to OSHA, and thus part of the employer’s establishment for recordable purposes. If an employee has a recordable injury during work hours in the company parking area – whether driving, exiting or entering a vehicle or walking – the incident is considered work-related.

Take action

What can be done, then, other than employers appealing to their workers to stay alert and off their devices coming and going from company parking lots and garages?

The first and most important step employers can take, experts say, is to institute a traffic safety program. In its “Guidelines for Employers to Reduce Motor Vehicle Crashes,” OSHA describes real-world programs that helped reduce work-related driving incidents and their related capital and workers’ compensation costs while increasing safe behaviors such as seat belt use.

Such proactive steps can extend to the design of the parking lot and policies regarding driver and pedestrian behavior, said Lee Cannon, a trustee with the Fraternal Order of Police.

“Awareness is the key to preventiveness,” he said. “Signage makes a difference.”

Cannon said reminder signs such as “Don’t Text and Drive” and “Buckle Up” should be posted in lots, and those messages can be placed on stickers and windshield flyers and sent out in companywide email blasts. Portions of parking lots and garages can be set aside strictly for compact cars to avoid visibility issues.

Even better, Cannon said, encourage employees to back into spaces so they don’t have to back out when leaving. There can be back-in-only areas as well, he added.

Upon further review

Employers can solidify their policies with a safety review of their parking areas. The Parking Advisory Group LLC designs parking areas, but also analyzes existing lots and makes recommendations for improvements, keeping in mind that the federal government has no national standards for safety in parking lot design despite the number of incidents that occur there.

“We always try to design with that in mind, even if it’s not required,” said Jerry Marcus, president and owner of the Houston-based firm. “I try to keep the 2,000-pound vehicles away from the 200-pound humans as much as I can.”

Marcus favors one-way lanes to minimize driver distraction and methods to minimize speed. He said speed bumps can cause distracted drivers to lose control of the vehicle and are hazards for pedestrians. He prefers rumble strips, placed closer together the nearer they are to pedestrian areas. The tightly packed strips produce a sound that makes the driver think he or she is accelerating, Marcus said. Raised crosswalks make it clear that people walk in that area and force drivers to slow down. Marcus noted that he has worked with a company that used radar and digital displays to show parking lot drivers their speed, and that repeat speeding offenders were made to park in a lot farther away.

“Speed is the No. 1 issue in a parking lot,” Marcus said. “Owners are reluctant to post speed because then they would have to do something about it if people were not doing what they’re supposed to with regards to that posted speed, and that becomes a major headache for them to try to police that. It’s not easy to do.”

Marcus designs and analyzes with other safety principles in mind as well, including:

Lighting: Outside lighting should be up high, powerful and maintained; one dim area can cause an incident for workers on early and late shifts. In a garage, it gets more nuanced. Marcus said that because many garages have ceilings lower than 10 feet, even sufficient lighting doesn’t have room to be properly dispersed, resulting in dimly lit areas. Because the contrast between bright daylight and a shadowed garage can cause drivers momentary blindness upon entering, he overlights entrances to minimize the transition.

Reduction in pedestrian distances: Marcus said architects don’t like to have ramps to garages visible on the outside, but starting them indoors makes the rest of the design less than safe, especially for pedestrians.

“What that does is divides the garage into compartments, and you have to walk a greater distance up a drive aisle before you can turn toward an elevator,” he said. “I try to maximize the number of bays that are contiguous and that’ll make the lighting work better, the graphics work better, the wayfinding work better, and it is a much safer environment overall.”

The one-way aisles not only reduce the hazard of oncoming vehicles, Marcus said, they allow for easier angled parking that doesn’t require swinging out into oncoming traffic to better position the vehicle. Most drivers know the maneuvering difficulty of parking between two vehicles in 90-degree parking spaces; oncoming cars make it not only difficult, but dangerous.

Graphics: Messages must be simple and, when possible, familiar. Drivers have enough going on in parking areas – they don’t need to be trying to read more than a word or two, and well-known colors and shapes go a long way. Spaces and directional arrows should be clearly painted with reflective paint and well-maintained.

Watch your step

Once drivers are out of their cars, they should refrain from walking between vehicles. Marcus, like Solomon and Cannon, has common-sense tips for pedestrians in lots and garages: “The safest place for a person to walk is down the middle of the aisle because they’re the most visible there.”

Incidents involving vehicles are not the only safety concern as employees walk in and out of the building. Damaged surfaces can cause trips and weatherized surfaces can cause slips. Marcus said he designs lots with a 2 percent grade in all directions so water drains away and doesn’t re-ice after clearing. Permeable surfaces are a good choice for sustainability-minded organizations – they keep moisture away as well as put water back into the water table.

Employers also should consider liability, said Gregory Grinberg, an attorney who represents insurers and employers in workers’ compensation cases in California. He said that, depending on jurisdiction, if an employer’s negligence has contributed to an incident with a recordable injury, there could be damages in addition to the workers’ comp cost. For example, if a car crash occurs as a result of poor lighting in the parking lot, and the employers were given some warning or instructions to make repairs but did not, a second incident resulting from the lack of lighting could lead to fines and penalties.

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