For Internal Use

June 9, 2010

Highway work zones can include everything from opening a manhole on a city street to building an interstate cloverleaf, and the road construction and maintenance industry has learned some valuable lessons over the years about accident prevention in work zones.

Construction is a tough business, and while the risk factors have long been identified, it’s not a finite science. Improvements and refinements are being made daily, and truth be known, if your organization plans to stay competitive in this industry, then you should be looking for and embracing these improvements.

Highway work zones can include everything from opening a manhole on a city street to building an interstate cloverleaf, and the road construction and maintenance industry has learned some valuable lessons over the years about accident prevention in work zones.

Construction is a tough business, and while the risk factors have long been identified, it’s not a finite science. Improvements and refinements are being made daily, and truth be known, if your organization plans to stay competitive in this industry, then you should be looking for and embracing these improvements.

The fatality statistics associated with highway work zones are sobering. Over 700 fatalities occur annually due to work-zone crashes, most of which involve motorists. For a direct examination of the multiple fatalities to workers inside the work zone, visit This is the Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation Program that the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) maintains.

Worker fatalities are not classified as highway deaths, but rather as occupational fatalities. The people who track occupational fatalities are OSHA and NIOSH. They’ve been busy developing safety educational materials to prevent these accidents, and if you are in the highway industry, you need to take advantage of their efforts.

OSHA has partnered with several industry groups to produce a 10-hour safety course dedicated to work zones. More information on this important basic-level awareness course can be found through Work Zone Safety at

The 10 modules are:

  • Understanding OSHA;
  • Roadway work zones (temporary traffic control);
  • Personal protective equipment and high-visibility clothing;
  • Collisions between workers and vehicle operators;
  • Night work;
  • Mechanized equipment;
  • Electrical safety;
  • Excavations and trenching;
  • Confined spaces;
  • Fall prevention and protection; and
  • Occupational health and environmental controls, including fatigue, hydration, etc.

While this course is a good start for highway workers, continuing research and analysis by NIOSH has found that a lot of workers on foot are becoming fatalities inside the work zones, getting hit by their own trucks or equipment. NIOSH is currently in the process of developing safety guidelines to address this issue with an initiative aimed at Internal Traffic Control Plans (ITCPs).

To the uninitiated, this may sound like a bit of a stretch. What’s the big deal? A few big trucks and machines moving around; they’re large enough so you can’t miss them. But to anyone who spends time on a work zone of any appreciable size, this is an idea whose time is overdue. Uncontrolled traffic in and around a work zone can become chaotic, and it needs to be controlled, because workers on foot are imperiled, and they’re getting killed at an alarming rate.

A common misperception in construction safety management is, “Why do we need to change our ways, we’ve never had an accident?” This is a strong attitude to overcome, particularly when you have enjoyed a good safety record. The basis of fact to consider in making a decision on adopting change should be:

  • Is our good safety record the result of deliberate effort or have we just been lucky? and
  • Are we taking advantage of every avenue of information and improvement to protect our employees?

Smart managers will understand that there is basically no end to the process of improving safety. And the complexity of the process is directly related to the severity of the hazard. Highway work zones qualify near the extreme end of the severity scale, and clearly qualify for intensive safety management.

Highway work zones need an ITCP that addresses traffic management and worker safety inside the work zone. The ITCP needs to be communicated and enforced and should be written at the superintendent level, because that’s who will be living with the plan on the ground. The ITCP needs to address the entire spectrum of work-zone vehicle and human choreography for the duration of the project.

Suggested ITCP elements are:

1) Management leadership is the driving force. This is axiomatic in the safety business: What’s on the boss’ agenda is going to be on everyone else’s agenda. If the top guys are not showing commitment, the message to the troops downstream is that safety on the job is a less important factor. We all know this is not the case, but leadership at the top level must be clear, demonstrative and participatory. In other words, the top brass needs to be leading the safety meeting to describe your organization’s new approach to managing traffic inside the work zone. Their signature needs to be on the ITCP to show they’re on board with it.

2) Identify all the players in he scenario.This step can take some interesting turns, such as going upstream to the asphalt plant and scale house and affirmatively informing truck dispatchers that your work zone has an ITCP (give them a copy). This is going to sound a little foreign to them at first, but they’re the people loading trucks and sending them in your direction, and you need to create awareness of your new plan at that level.

3) Also, be sure to include inspectors, engineers, local, county and DOT parties in your plan and its rollout communications, such as at the pre-work meeting. While these folks may not actually show up for the toolbox safety meeting, they should receive an invitation and a copy of your new ITCP. This will show that you’re serious about preventing accidents to all parties.

4) What you drive can make your work zone safer. New trucks and equipment will have the latest safety features, and you should try to take advantage of these. This option may not always be within your span of control, but it is worth exploring. Truck manufacturers have made a number of important safety advancements in driver visibility, and you need to make sure your equipment has the following:

  • “Anteater”-sloped hoods that maximize front view and reduce drivers’ blind spot in front and sides;
  • Low-glare polarized windshields and door glass. Avoid tinted glass;
  • Daytime running lights (DRLs) should be installed on new trucks, and the older units should be retrofitted. If they are not, drivers should be required to pull the light switch. This is perhaps the single most important passive defensive driving measure and needs to be part of your internal work-zone traffic control plan. This needs to apply to all vehicles, including contract haulers and others not directly under your control. The human eye is “light-seeking,” and DRLs offer an important advantage in vehicle recognition, under all lighting conditions;
  • Wide-angle, large-surface mirrors, with convex lens insert to minimize blind spots;
  • Rear-view cameras and presence-sensing devices, and of course backup alarms;
  • Low-profile, low-reflection dashboards. Fleet safety-management practices need to include the provision to keep “stuff” off the dashboard—radios, fans, notepads, GPS units, decals, personal effects, etc. The dashboard needs to be clear for optimal viewing;
  • Cab door lower-section windows providing a patch of side-viewing area;
  • Look for safety features on all of the rolling stock in the work zone. The water truck and tack-coat trucks are typically not your top-line units, but they are subject to the same provisions. Examine everything, including earthmoving equipment, on tracks or rubber, milling, paving, rollers, low boys and tractors. You may not be able to modernize the entire fleet overnight, but at least you can learn which units are up to date and take some interim measures on the older equipment; and
  • Make sure everything has DOT conspicuity tape on it and a strobe light. A common deficiency is noted where 10-wheel dumps will have a cab-roof-mounted strobe, which is technically in compliance, but the truck bed obscures the strobe from the rear. A little extra work will mount the strobe high enough for full visibility. That’s a critical element to include in your plan. Inspect for DOT conspicuity tape on rear- and side-facing surfaces, particularly towed equipment.
5) High-visibility apparel is arguably the most critical functional piece of PPE for workers on the ground. Knowledgeable persons should review your organization’s selection of high-visibility apparel. Safety-equipment vendors can help keep you apprised of the periodic advancements and refinements in this category. If you’re buying your high-visibility gear out of a catalog, you might be surprised to learn about the advancements being made in the realm of engineered fabrics. The ANSI standards governing this apparel are designed to provide the best combination of high-visibility fabric (usually lime green or blaze orange) and retroreflective material. Keep in mind that during hours of darkness, the high-visibility fabric will be less visible or completely invisible. This is a critical element for road crews. One alternative method is to issue full-body, high-visibility apparel that will provide additional retroreflective markings to illuminate the full human profile. The category of high-visibility apparel is so critical it deserves its own seminar, but here are some of the main points to instruct your crews:
  • Keep it clean. Prolonged sunlight exposure will fade the fabric. Replace as often as needed for maximum visual conspicuity;
  • Keep garments buttoned or zipped for full deployment. Avoid standing sideways to traffic. Try to face traffic as much as possible. If a worker must take their eyes off oncoming traffic, a spotter must be assigned to watch and warn;
  • Avoid camouflage or dark undergarments;
  • Supplement the high-visibility gear with light-colored hard hats and reflective decals; and
  • In warm climate, a breathable high-visibility fabric will help.
6) Teach your crews to avoid the overuse of tinted lenses (sunglasses). One of the leading statements recorded on traffic accident reports is: “I never saw them.” The ability of the eye to see clearly under all lighting conditions is impaired by tinted lenses, compounded by tinted windows and other visual factors. Common practice is to put the tinted lenses on in the morning and wear them all day, every day, in spite of the actual daylight conditions. For example, on a cloudy day, tinted lenses are not only superfluous, but they’re making it harder for the eye to detect movement, depth of field, texture, etc. In a tight work zone, these elements cannot be compromised. Provide your crews with good, quality clear and tinted lenses and also a pouch to store the unused pair.

7) The ITCP must designate routes of travel for vehicles entering and leaving the site as well as travel within the site. These routes need to be defined as closely as possible, preferably with signs or graphics for clear direction. Bear in mind, one of the most hazardous maneuvers for a work vehicle is simply entering and leaving the work zone. That’s where a lot of crashes occur, and the plan must delineate a procedure for making this entry/exit as safe as possible.

Other aspects of traffic control include:

  • Designated parking or standing areas;
  • Require that drivers remain inside their vehicles while waiting or designate a safe area for them to stand while waiting. Avoid congregating around vehicles, even when parked;
  • Designate a safe area for backing, preferably with a spotter; and
  • Define protected areas and inform workers on foot to stay inside protected limits as much as possible. City street intersections and school zones use crosswalks; work zones do not have this luxury. It’s your job to create the equivalent on paper and communicate to the crews.
8) Flaggers and spotters are often at risk inside the work zone. Protective measures include:
  • Allow no distractions. These can be insidious. Talking on a cell phone is border line. Texting is over the line. No iPods or other entertainment;
  • Provide spotters with an emergency warning device, usually a small compressed air horn or whistle;
  • Spotters must have no other duties. This is where things can go wrong. They must be dedicated to protecting the traffic and persons on foot;
  • Spotters and drivers should have definitive instruction (something in writing that they sign) explaining their responsibilities, which the state of Virginia has recently included in its safety code;
  • If a driver loses sight of a spotter he must immediately stop and regain visual identity before moving again;
  • The spotter must remain in a safe area, preferably in front or on driver’s side while vehicle is backing;
  • The spotter and driver must use an agreed-upon set of hand signals to communicate;
  • No other persons are to be permitted in the area of movement;
  • Full-body, high-visibility apparel should be required for both spotters and flaggers; and
  • Flaggers should use handheld signs and avoid the use of hand signals, which can be confusing or misleading.
9) Work zones at night carry heightened risks—internally and externally. Remember, after midnight the percentage of impaired drivers begins to climb. Operative factors for night work include:
  • Making sure all advance-warning signage is on station and is clean. A dirty sign may still be legible in daylight, but at night, every blemish detracts from its message. Use illuminated devices upstream to supplement signage. Use properly positioned arrow and message boards and, whenever possible, engage a police detail for a patrol car presence. This helps keep everyone alert;
  • If the job is running on overtime, this can be a serious issue after midnight. Crews must be sufficiently rested with proper sleep intervals. Fatigue and drowsiness may lead to impaired decision-making ability, delayed reaction times and a host of other complications (such as falling asleep at the wheel). Manage this through proper scheduling and planning. Foremen need to be alert to signs of employee fatigue and take corrective measures;
  • Proper hydration and diet can affect employee performance. These need to be topics at a safety meeting for employee awareness;
  • When using light towers during night operations, be careful to arrange lighting so as not to create glare blindness for oncoming motorists. Similarly, employees on the ground need sufficient illumination in the work area. No one in the work zone should need to wear their sunglasses when lighting is correctly positioned; and
  • For work zones with no physical separation from traffic—such as milling and paving, maintenance, sweeping and moving operations—there should be at least one CB radio (handheld or vehicle-mounted). These may be used for communication within the work zone, but more importantly to broadcast a periodic warning message to oncoming 18-wheelers for the presence of the work zone. They are remarkably effective in slowing down the truckers, and typically this will slow down the four-wheelers also. Keep the message brief, but you need to make sure the trucker is awake when he’s rolling up on your work zone.

Admittedly, that is a long list. But truth be known, this is just an introduction to the topic. If you’re in the business of building or maintaining highways, you need to be following those hyperlinks and learning more about controlling traffic inside the work zone and protecting persons on the ground. This issue is not going away as long as dirt is being moved and pavement is being laid.

About The Author: Meola is the safety manager for Transfield Services North America, Transportation Infrastructure, Richmond, Va.

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