Everybody follow Vermont

Jan. 16, 2004

When you enter a work zone, it should really feel like stepping into a Wal-Mart.

This country carries thousands of the discount superstores, but each one has a familiar look. The tactic is used so the consumer feels more at ease.

When you enter a work zone, it should really feel like stepping into a Wal-Mart.

This country carries thousands of the discount superstores, but each one has a familiar look. The tactic is used so the consumer feels more at ease.

When you think about it, a contractor or municipal worker setting up a work zone must take the same approach. If a motorist knows what to expect they’ll be able to react and make the right moves. Unfortunately, the temporary environments aren’t always consistent. Many do not even carry the same products.

The state of Vermont viewed the inconsistency as a serious problem, and the concern is starting to spread nationwide. Two years ago, Richard Wobby, director of member services for the Vermont Associated General Contractors of America, helped lead a group dedicated to flipping everyone on the same page. The meeting of about 100 people, which included traffic managers, contractors and police officers, opened the lines of communication. From there, a team of eight developed a work-zone checklist everyone could refer to.

Those in the Vermont road-building industry are now looking after one another. If there is work being done on a bridge off Rte. 100 without proper signage or cone placement one can notify somebody on the eight-member team, which in turn will talk to the party responsible for the work. “There are no hard feelings,” said Wobby. “We’ve created a watchdog group that is helping to ensure the consistency of the work zones.”

Vermont also has a work-zone inspection sheet covering the following categories: temporary traffic control, cones, drums, barricades, signs, portable changeable message signs, sign supports, flaggers/devices, pavement markings and temporary markings. After identifying the project name, number and resident, the one inspecting is asked several questions tied to a specific area like temporary traffic control. After checking a “yes” or “no,” the monitor is asked to make comments and further observations. The beauty of the method is an inspection can happen at any time, and workers must follow Vermont’s common set of guidelines.

This new approach also uncovered the weakest link--employee training. By combining the traffic tech and flagger programs of the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) and adding a few state-specific wrinkles, a pocket guide was developed. Vermont’s Guide to Highway Work Zones includes a checklist and rules and regulations on how to set up and operate a work zone. “The biggest thing we’ve done is created consistency across the state where everybody is learning the same thing, the same way,” said Wobby.

Since first publishing the handbook a year ago six states have inquired about it, and Vermont has plans of sitting and sharing its work-zone model with neighbors New Hampshire and Maine in the spring.

ATSSA also is putting miles on the message. The Uniform Enforcement/Inspection Task Force, chaired by Jim Babcock, first shed light on the work-zone consistency problem at last year’s Annual Convention and Traffic Expo in New Orleans. The group plans on taking it a step further during ATSSA’s 34th annual meeting in San Antonio, and will use Vermont’s approach as a key building block. “We want to take something positive and roll with it,” said Babcock.

The federal government is already considering a new financial spin. Work zones may become an actual line item on a bid sheet, further ensuring quality. States may follow suit.

But the Vermont plan alone should go a long way on forming that ideal work area. It is essential for everyone to follow the same set of footprints, whether it is the shoes of a utility worker or the shoes of a contractor. The whole watchdog strategy also should help alleviate another long-time burden: enforcement. Instead of placing the responsibility on one pair of shoulders, like the state police, anyone in any department can keep work zones in check.

The effort is certainly needed, because when it comes to saving lives no one should be looking for a discount.

About The Author: Bill Wilson is editor of Roads & Bridges.

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