The state of work zone safety

Industry heightens efforts to prevent incidents

By Deidre Bello, associate editor

  • The number of work zone fatalities and injuries had dropped 17 percent in 2007 – the sharpest single-year decline in a decade.
  • New revisions to traffic standards and regulations are expected to be released this year to further improve work zone safety.
  • Advances in technology and cooperation with law enforcement have helped contractors and departments of transportation in states such as Texas and Ohio improve work zone safety.

Four months into the summer construction season, thousands of bridge and highway construction and repair projects are underway. The Department of Trans­por­tation announced in April that the number of work zone fatalities and injuries dropped 17 percent in 2007 – the sharpest single-year decline in a decade. However, transportation safety professionals claim challenges to reduce hazards in work zones remain, and heightened efforts will be needed to keep workers and the motoring public safe.

According to a white paper released April 30 by DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration, in a typical year, work zones affect about 25 percent of the National Highway System during the peak construction season each summer. During the summer of 2003, states spent approximately $33 billion on roadway infrastructure construction, resulting in roughly 7,200 work zones and 480 million vehicle hours of delay.

Earlier this year, approximately $27.5 billion was appropriated for thousands of highway construction and repair projects nationwide under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Concern about the stimulus package’s impact on the state of road and bridge construction safety materialized in an April meeting that included OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health. At press time, more than 3,700 transportation projects funded by stimulus money had been authorized.

While it is anyone’s guess as to how these thousands of projects will affect the economy, traffic congestion and highway safety, Brad Sant, vice president of safety and education and managing director for the Washington-based American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s Traffic Safety Industry Division, said the industry likely will prepare the same as it does for any rehabilitation, construction or resurfacing project. Meanwhile, officials with the Federal High­way Administration advise that controlling the impact on safety and mobility from work zones will require appropriate planning, coordination, sequencing and scheduling of projects.

Great strides have been made to improve work zone safety throughout the years, Sant said. A number of factors also have contributed to the decline in fatalities and injuries, including improvements to traffic safety laws, greater interest in worker safety from state DOTs and roadway owners, and better equipment and hardware on roadways.

“Our challenge in the industry is to ensure that while we anticipate a higher number of construction projects – meaning more roadway work zones – we want to make sure [worker and motorist] fatalities do not go up as well,” Sant said.

Improving the work zone environment

The highway work zone environment is one of the most dangerous. Large dump trucks are constantly entering and exiting the area, traffic tends to move at very high speeds within limited space, and workers on foot are carrying out duties in many different parts of the work zone, Sant said. Other growing concerns for work zone safety experts include the increase in driver distractions, congestion and visibility issues due to more projects being scheduled at night. According to NIOSH, from 1992 to 2000, 910 worker fatalities occurred in work zones, and more than 90 percent of those deaths involved motor vehicles, a piece of construction equipment or both. Workers on foot accounted for more than 500 of those work zone deaths.

One thing that has helped reduce incidents of backovers, runovers and motor vehicle intrusions in work zones in the past few years is that many new federal regulations have been enacted through FHWA and authorized by Congress, representing a major step by government to promote worker safety, Sant said.

In October 2007, FHWA enacted amendments to its work zone safety and mobility standard (23 CFR 630 Subpart J) with its provisions that address reducing recurrent road work, the work zone duration and the disruption to the traveling public caused by work zones. Another recent FHWA standard (23 CFR 630 Subpart K) “leveled the playing field” for contractors by requiring state DOTs to include special consideration for cost allocations for safety equipment and traffic control devices in contracts, Sant said.

In addition, in late 2008, FHWA enacted the Worker Visi­bility Rule (23 CFR 634), which raised high-visibility safety apparel standards. Traffic safety industry professionals are now awaiting an updated version of the National Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. A notice of proposed amendments to the MUTCD was published in the Federal Register on Jan. 2, 2008, and a public comment period closed seven months later. FHWA officials say they are reviewing and analyzing the comments.

Major changes in the MUTCD likely will echo new FHWA rules related to worker high-visibility garments, but will be applied only to federal aid roads, Sant said. ANSI also is expected to echo FHWA rules with the release of a new standard for public safety officers that, once issued, will require everyone – not just construction employees – working in the right-of-way of a federal aid road to wear, at minimum, ANSI Class II high-visibility garments, Sant said. Other resources FHWA made available this spring include a resource for traffic incidents management in work zones. Released April 9 by FHWA’s Office of Operations, “Traffic Incident Management in Construction and Maintenance Work Zones” updates rules published in 2004 governing work zone safety and mobility, and addresses the contractor’s role in work zone management of incidents. In addition, ARTBA and other industry and labor organizations jointly launched an updated version of the Roadway Safety Awareness Program in April, Sant said, which includes three new models for night construction, run­overs and backovers, and temporary traffic control devices. The program is free to the public.

In late March, FHWA released guidelines for reducing traffic speed through work zones, traffic control devices and positive protection.

State DOTs reducing work zone incidents

Another factor that has helped reduce work zone incidents in the past decade, Sant said, is that more states are conducting public awareness campaigns.

Data from the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse shows Texas has annually reduced the number of fatalities in construction or maintenance zones since 2002. The state reported 124 fatalities in 2007, down from 197 in 2002.

In April, the Texas Department of Transportation, the Associated General Contractors of America and the American Traffic Safety Services Association coordinated a Work Zone Safety Week kickoff event in Austin; meanwhile, each of the 25 TxDOT districts conducted individual campaigns. Visitors to the state capitol encountered dozens of orange traffic cones with black sleeve bands representing each work zone-related fatality in the state. Visitors also heard emotional stories from family members of work zone crash victims.

Michael Chacon, policy and standards engineer for the Traffic Operations Division of TxDOT, said that in addition to the Texas MUTCD, other TxDOT policies require work zone safety-related plans to be included into project agreements with contractors.

Other improvements can be attributed to continuous exploration of new devices that eliminate or reduce hazards to work crews and the motoring public. Intelligent Transportation Systems are used to monitor traffic and gather data used to relieve congestion and inform emergency response crews, in addition to aiding in the design of work zones. The state also uses dynamic message signs and portable changeable message signs to inform motorists about upcoming road conditions.

Truck-mounted attenuators increasingly are being used more throughout the state to provide protection for the workers and lessen the severity of rear-end collisions with construction equipment, Chacon said.

“We’re always willing to try new technology with potential to improve safety and get it implemented across our state,” Chacon said.

While some states and municipalities use automated speed enforcement to monitor work zone traffic, Texas has been successful in reducing crash incidents by using special provisions in projects that allow the inclusion of law enforcement presence on worksites, while lawmakers have enacted stronger penalties that double fines for drivers who speed through work zones. Other factors that have contributed to Texas’ success in reducing work zone fatalities include scheduling projects at night to avoid peak driving hours, increased public education and outreach to media, and the use of social networking Websites to further educate drivers.

Meanwhile, Department of Transportation officials in Ohio also have reported a decreasing number of crashes in work zones. The number of work zone-related vehicular crashes decreased to 5,772 in 2006 from 8,339 in 2001, said David Holstein, state traffic engineer for ODOT.

Ohio focuses on analyzing crash data, rather than fatality reports, to prevent future incidents, Holstein said. Still, the number of fatalities in motor vehicle traffic crashes in construction and maintenance zones in Ohio decreased to 21 in 2006 and 17 in 2007 from 25 in 2005, according to the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse.

Holstein credits the improvements to a better planning and design process for projects. This includes reviewing work zone design details at the beginning of the planning process. “Maintenance of Traffic Alternative Analysis” takes place before right-of-way acquisition, design and environmental assessments. ODOT also considers using lane closures instead of splitting a construction site with cross-traffic closures, which can contribute to driver confusion and increase crash risks. State officials also are more open to temporary full-lane closures and creating detours for drivers.

In addition, ODOT has increased collaboration with state law enforcement to add patrol car presence on worksites to discourage speeding. The department also has more access to real-time mobility data and crash incidence data, used to regularly assess work zone design depending on a project’s progress; and law enforcement officials are increasingly included in work zone design details to make enforcement more effective, Holstein said.

Ohio lawmakers recently approved a bill that requires motorists to pull over or slow down not only when approaching an emergency response vehicle, but also when a stationary emergency vehicle or road service vehicle’s amber lights are flashing, oscillating or rotating. Violation of this law is a minor misdemeanor on the first offense.

Post a comment to this article

Safety+Health welcomes comments that promote respectful dialogue. Please stay on topic. Comments that contain personal attacks, profanity or abusive language – or those aggressively promoting products or services – will be removed. We reserve the right to determine which comments violate our comment policy. (Anonymous comments are welcome; merely skip the “name” field in the comment box. An email address is required but will not be included with your comment.)