Work zone safety

work zone safety

The most important ingredient in the mix

By Dave Johnson, P.E. and Steve Jenkins, P.E.

“Authorities say a 29-year-old Laurel man was killed when a belly dump truck backed over him in an Interstate 90 construction zone near Anaconda.”

That was the opening line of an article about a fatal highway work zone accident on August 6, 2010 in Montana. This young man’s death reminds us that while we rightly focus our attentions to the best engineering and construction practices for the production of long lasting pavements, ours is still a dangerous business.

Far too often, a terribly high price is paid to produce our roads—sometimes the ultimate price. It is with this in mind that we would like to pause from our focus on the technical aspects of constructing and maintaining flexible pavements to discuss work zone safety.

National problem

Based on statistics from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), over the past ten years an average of 963 highway construction zone fatalities have occurred annually in the U.S. In a typical year deaths occur in at least 47 states and the District of Columbia, with all states being affected some years.

Many hazards

Highway workers are exposed to a variety of hazards in the course of their everyday operations in a work zone. These hazards include vehicle traffic from the public, construction vehicles as well as construction equipment.

Those of us that spend any time in work zones are exposed to a number of hazards from the driving public. Hazards include impaired drivers as a result of drugs, alcohol, sleep deprivation or distracted driving. Concerns include emergency vehicles, impatient drivers or perhaps someone who is lost and looking for directions. Any and perhaps all hazards are even more dangerous if operations are at night when proper lighting is an issue.

Safety training

FHWA and state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) continue to emphasize and refine safety programs. Ideally, each state DOT will act in concert with its Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) to provide a uniform work zone education and awareness training program for their state. Then state and local road officials will provide a seamless transportation system and drivers will know what to expect in any construction zone.

Many states, like Montana, provide training programs and guides for flaggers, technicians and supervisors. In some cases, a regional area like Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana entered into a reciprocity agreement so that training is more uniform. Regardless if it is regional or statewide, all training should comply with the “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).”

Traffic control standards are defined nationally by the MUTCD. The FHWA has been publishing this document since the early 1970s as directed by public law. The MUTCD has evolved over the years into its most current 2009 edition.

Hard copies of the MUTCD can be purchased from various outlets such as ATSSA, ITE, AASHTO or IMSA. It can be downloaded here in PDF format.

Many states have their own locally produced version of the MUTCD. Many of those can be found via links at the referenced website. Guidance documents on the MUTCD, free webinars pertaining to it and updated information on the guide are also found on the site.

Regardless of how the document is acquired, those involved in paving operations should become familiar with its sixth chapter on temporary work zones even if a subcontractor is typically responsible for traffic control on a project. Also, work zone traffic control classes are offered by most LTAPs in each state.

Many LTAPs have produced handy pocket guides based on chapter six for common work zone types in their respective states. By accessing the national website at you can quickly navigate to your local center.

Online resources

Not leaving safety to others to manage, FHWA also has much to offer. Under its “Work Zone Mobility and Safety Program,” a variety of tools can be found to assist in making work zones as safe as possible. Some of the best tools are those that help in accessing the effectiveness of a project?s work zone both for safety and traveler efficiency.

These can be found in the “Performance Measurement” section of their website. Be sure to browse everything this website has to offer before your paving season gets underway.

While becoming more knowledgeable of work zone requirements as presented in the MUTCD is a very good idea for those building and maintaining our asphalt roads, another area that offers opportunities for improvements in safety are blind spots that are common to the equipment needed for construction and maintenance operations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), through its National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offers some very helpful tools to improve the safety of those working on and around heavy equipment common to our industry.

Another important tool on this site is a number of operator blind spot diagrams for numerous road-construction trucks and heavy equipment. Moreover, they have a full explanation of the methodology to determine similar information for other trucks or implements.

Diagrams can be found here. These are great tools for safety meeting discussions with paving crews.

Night paving

Nighttime paving presents unique challenges for both quality and safety. While nighttime construction does allow work to be done with less traffic, the traffic you see at night typically has a higher percentage of problem drivers. Visibility of workers and equipment is of paramount concern.

As drivers age, the amount of light needed to see a worker doubles approximately every fifteen years. It is for these reasons that the MUTCD now requires all within the right of way to wear an American National Standard Institute (ANSI) Class 2 shirt or vest and recommends an ANSI Class 3 be worn at night.

Honoring victims

A portion of U.S. Highway 87, known as “Main Street” in Billings, Montana is now established as Richard Dean Roebling Memorial Highway. Roebling was the victim of a work zone accident—killed by an errant vehicle while taking cores on a fresh pavement.

This 38-year-old husband and father of three made a name for himself within the construction and engineering community with his strong work ethic and positive attitude.

We hope after reading this you’ll each review your work zone practices. With diligence, the recent trend in fewer work zone deaths will continue until they are so infrequent that we are not only saddened by an incident as we are today, we are truly surprised at its occurrence.

Dave Johnson, P.E. is an Asphalt Institute Regional Engineer based in Billings, Montana.

Steve Jenkins, P.E. is Director of the Montana LTAP.