Reducing backover incidents

Concerns grow over the high number of worker deaths

June 1, 2012


  • The use of spotters, good communication and an internal traffic control plan can minimize the risk of a back-over incident.
  • All drivers should be trained to stop their equipment immediately if they lose sight of their spotter, experts recommend.
  • Two State Plan states have a standard to regulate backing operations, and OSHA is investigating the possibility of a federal standard.

Chuck Stribling was a teen learning how to drive when he experienced the sickening feeling of backing his vehicle over something. “When I heard that thud, there was a pit in my stomach,” he said.

Luckily, the “victim” was only a garbage can. But it highlighted to Stribling, now the Kentucky Labor Cabinet’s occupational safety and health federal-state coordinator, what drivers at worksites must feel when they inadvertently back a vehicle or piece of equipment over someone.

“I can only imagine being a driver on a construction site, feeling that bump and the horror that has to fill you with,” he said.

It is a horror too many workers face, according to some stakeholders. Between 2005 and 2010, more than 350 workers were killed as a result of vehicles or equipment backing up. This data has prompted OSHA to examine whether a rule is needed to regulate backing procedures on worksites.

On March 29, OSHA opened the record for public comment, requesting information on what actions – if any – the agency could take in reducing injuries and deaths from back-over-related incidents. (At press time, the record is scheduled to close on June 27.)

It is not certain whether an OSHA standard could help reduce fatalities and the untold numbers of injuries that may be occurring from backing operations, but most experts agree employers can take steps to reduce the risk on worksites.

A ‘disturbingly consistent’ hazard

As director of Virginia’s Division of Legal Support within the Department of Labor and Industry, Jay Withrow’s responsibilities include reviewing every fatal incident case file before a decision is made on whether or not to issue a citation.

During his 27 years with the department, Withrow has discovered that many back-over fatality cases have similar scenarios: The driver either did not know anyone was behind the vehicle, or the driver lost sight of someone he or she knew was behind the vehicle. Either way, the driver continued backing up and did not stop until a bump was felt.

“It’s disturbingly consistent when you read the interviews with the drivers,” Withrow said of the fatality scenarios.

Vehicles and equipment – especially larger ones – have blind areas that make it impossible for operators to fully see behind the vehicle while backing up. Under federal standards, neither the driver nor the worker outside the vehicle guiding the driver has a responsibility to maintain visual contact with one another, and the driver is not required to stop when contact is lost. Additionally, the driver does not have to exit the vehicle to check behind it before backing up.

But the hazard of backing operations is nothing new on worksites. So why is the issue gaining more attention? Part of the reason is because other well-known hazards, such as flaggers being struck by passing vehicles, are being minimized, and the reality of the backing hazard is coming into better focus.

NIOSH statistician Dave Fosbroke has examined road construction zone fatality data for more than 10 years. He first worked on motor vehicle fatalities on construction sites until he was asked about equipment run-overs. He found very little examination into the issue, as almost all of it was focused on traffic safety.

Looking at the data, he discovered that almost as many workers died after being run over as those struck by motorists. Unfortunately for workers, however, more attention is paid to motorists and work zone safety than to safety within a work zone.

“More recently, there are more people run over by construction equipment than by motorists,” Fosbroke said.

Sound the alarm

One of the few federal requirements addressing backing operations is the use of a back-up alarm – the familiar beeping sound heard whenever a dump truck or forklift is in reverse. However, that warning device is for workers on the ground, not for the driver. And even for workers on foot, those backing alarms are not the lone answer, according to stakeholders.

“There is some fatigue associated with [backing alarms] in that you hear the same sound over and over again, and it starts to lose its meaning,” said Steve Hawkins, assistant administrator at the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

OSHA data shows that of the 47 fatal cases that occurred between 2005 and 2010 in which the vehicle was equipped with a back-up alarm, the alarm was working in only 28 of the cases.

Additionally, back-up alarms are not necessarily directional – workers on the ground may have no idea where the alarm is coming from. On a worksite with several other types of noises and distractions, the alarm may not be heard or acknowledged at all. In seven back-over fatality cases that occurred between 2005 and 2010, an alarm was working but not heard by the struck worker, according to OSHA data.

Certain stakeholders, such as Hawkins, claim alarms are not enough to reduce or eliminate the hazard, and other safeguards are needed.

The traffic plan solution

How can back-over hazards be eliminated, or at least reduced? Fosbroke advocates developing an internal traffic control plan that organizes work being done on the site in a manner that reduces the need to back up.

“Things that [employers] can do to reduce backing equipment will help,” he said.

Even if a traffic control plan is unable to eliminate backing operations, employers can use them to make things easier and safer for workers on foot. For instance, employers can establish worker-free zones to keep on-foot employees clear of operating equipment.

Each traffic control plan will be specific to its own site. Developing such a plan may sound complicated given the amount of work going on and the various types of workers onsite, but Fosbroke said it does not have to be. Before work begins, key contractors and equipment or vehicle supervisors can discuss the plan for the day, outline possible hazards, and decide how traffic will flow – something that sounds similar to a pre-job meeting or job hazard analysis, Fosbroke noted.

“All we’ve done is package things that already exist into a traffic control plan,” he said.

Fosbroke currently is analyzing data from a recent study comparing companies across the country that used internal traffic control plans with those that did not. Stressing that the analysis is still preliminary, he said the data suggests the sites that set up rules for locating workers on foot and followed those rules were safer than sites that either did not establish rules or failed to follow them.

Communication among all workers

Developing an internal traffic control plan is a good first step, but the plan has to be communicated to all workers and supervisors. “It means taking the information that the foreman has about how he’s going to run the operation and providing it through a communication mechanism onsite,” Fosbroke said.

Any time the operation changes – such as redirecting trucks – new hazards are created. Information about operational changes needs to be communicated to all affected crew members – including drivers and equipment operators.

Other information that needs to be communicated to help reduce back-over fatalities and injuries includes the use of spotters, according to Fosbroke. Spotters can help equipment operators navigate blind spots and back the vehicle up safely, he noted.

The vehicle operator should maintain constant communication – either with standardized hand signals or through a radio – with the spotter.

Developments in technology are allowing for easier communication between on-foot workers and equipment operators. The use of reverse cameras, radar, proximity alarms and other devices can help alert drivers when a worker may be in the vehicle’s path.

Training workers

Training to help prevent back-over incidents has to be developed for specific audiences, according to Fosbroke, who broke down training into three categories:

  • Management – Training should focus on the importance of safe backing operations, what can be done to minimize the hazard and why doing so is important.
  • Supervisor – For employees such as foremen and site supervisors, training should focus on procedures, such as how to develop an internal traffic control plan.
  • Employees – Both equipment operators and on-foot employees should receive training that includes hazard awareness and recognition.

Specifically, vehicle drivers should be trained to stop immediately when they lose sight of their spotter. Although most workers are killed in backing operations when no spotter is present, there have been some cases where the spotter was backed over after the driver lost sight of him or her.

Workers should be trained about blind spots, and drivers taught how to park without needing to back up. One company Fosbroke spoke with invited ground workers to climb into the equipment and experience the blind spots from the operator’s point of view.


Even though employers can take certain actions to help keep workers safer around backing vehicles, the number of deaths indicates to some experts that more should be done.

“Given the number of fatalities, it seems like what’s in place may not be working,” Stribling said.

Stribling and Hawkins are co-chairs of the backing operations workgroup within OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health. The group is exploring the need for a backing operations standard and what it might encompass.

In Withrow’s opinion, any national standard should be modeled after Virginia’s regulation.

Virginia, an OSHA State Plan state, can issue regulations that are more stringent than federal rules. In 2009, it became the second State Plan state (after Washington) to implement a standard regulating workplace backing procedures.

Prior to the rule taking effect, Virginia averaged two fatalities a year due to backing operations. After the rule’s promulgation, between Sept. 18, 2009, and Nov. 23, 2011, the state had only two deaths – a 50 percent reduction. Most notably, no construction industry deaths occurred in that time period, representing a sharp decline for an industry that until recently had the most annual back-over deaths in Virginia.

“I think their statistics speak for themselves,” Stribling said.

But leaving back-over rulemaking to the states should not be an option, Withrow asserted, as the states are limited in how stringent their regulations can be. For instance, Virginia could not have issued a standard requiring vehicles or equipment to be radar-equipped without showing compelling local conditions for such a requirement. As backing operations are not particularly more hazardous in any one state over another, individual states could not push for such a requirement – but federal OSHA could.

Regardless of what action OSHA may or may not take, things are improving. Partnerships between labor and research organizations are working to help prevent back-over deaths, and Fosbroke hopes advancements can be made in protecting workers from onsite equipment as well as passing vehicles.

“Things have definitely gotten better,” he said of worker awareness of backing operations inside a work zone. “That being said, we’re still running over too many workers.”