Protecting workers

News Roads & Bridges June 14, 2001
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Traffic vehicles crashing into road construction work zones are a problem, but equally hazardous are the construction vehicles and equipment within the work zone, according to a study released May 15 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an agency of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"If you look at those people who were on foot at the time of the fatality, about half of them were run over by their own equipment and trucks, frequently in backing maneuvers," said David F. Fosbroke, a co-author of Building Safer Highway Work Zones: Measures to Prevent Worker Injuries from Vehicles and Equipment. Fosbroke told ROADS & BRIDGES, "That really had not been in the literature before."

The senior co-author of the report for NIOSH was Stephanie G. Pratt. The third co-author was Suzanne M. Marsh.

The report reads: "Clearly, safety efforts must address eliminating vehicle crashes of the motoring public traveling through work zones while ensuring the safety of workers who work adjacent to traffic. However, safety efforts must also protect construction workers within work zones who are working on foot around moving vehicles and equipment, as well as those who are operating dump trucks, rollers, pavers, and other pieces of construction equipment."

Among the 492 fatalities that occurred within work zones between 1992 and 1998, as documented by the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), the leading occupations were construction laborer (42%), truck driver (9%), construction trades supervisor (8%) and operating engineer (8%).

Another 349 fatalities occurred in areas ancillary to the work zone, such as a temporary batch plant.

Of the 492 work-zone fatalities, 465 were vehicle or equipment related, and 318 of them involved workers on foot being struck by a vehicle. "Victims of these events were as likely to be struck by a construction vehicle (154 fatalities) as by a passing traffic vehicle (152 fatalities)," according to the NIOSH report.

Of the fatalities involving traffic vehicles intruding into the work space, where the CFOI noted the worker’s activity at the time of the incident, the most frequent work tasks were repairing the road, flagging and setting or moving traffic control devices.

NIOSH’s primary recommendations included routinely incorporating worker safety practices and equipment into bid specifications and contracts written by departments of transportation (DOTs). Fosbroke mentioned truck-mounted attenuators as an example of and item that could be incorporated into the project at the design stage. High-visibility clothing and the layout of temporary batch plants are other examples.

Once these safety measures are written into a construction contract, then they are more likely to be enforced, noted Fosbroke.

The construction contracting agency and the contractor could also bring in other agencies to assist with safety monitoring. NIOSH gives several examples where cooperation among different agencies has helped to ensure work-zone safety. In a program in New Jersey, local police officers receive training in work-zone safety and are then authorized to warn employers of safety hazards on the jobsite. If hazards are not corrected after the second warning, police notify the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration (OSHA).

In another program in Wisconsin, deputy sheriffs in plainclothes mingle with construction workers. The deputies are equipped with handheld laser speed detectors and portable radios to identify speeding or erratically driven vehicles and notify law enforcement personnel stationed farther down the road if a stop is warranted.

Both of these programs have helped to reduce work-zone incidents.

NIOSH’s recommendations also included training all workers in highway and street construction work zones about staying safe in the work zone.

The American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) agrees: "We are in favor of mandatory training for all work-zone workers," Jim Baron, director of communications, told ROADS & BRIDGES. "We feel that the accidents and the injuries and the fatalities… a lot of that could be prevented if everyone in the work zone was adequately trained."

NIOSH also recommended distributing high-visibility apparel to all workers in the work zone, not just those who direct traffic.

Traffic control officials and construction officials should also work with each other and with the research community, according to NIOSH. The perspectives of all these communities are needed and should be coordinated.

One area where transportation officials and regulators should work together, said Fosbroke, is in developing more detailed safety guidelines for nighttime road construction operations.

ATSSA thinks there is a need for more detailed reporting of work-zone accidents. "There needs to be some consistency in what is considered an accident in a work zone," said Donna Clark, director of training and products at ATSSA, who assisted in the development of the NIOSH report. For instance, some states have accident reports that record accidents in the queue leading up to a work zone as work-zone accidents, Clark said. Other states do not.

The NIOSH report analyzes information about worker fatalities collected by the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), a Bureau of Labor Statistics program that gathers information about fatalities on the job. NIOSH looked primarily at fatalities in the "Highway and Street Construction" category. CFOI considers death certificates, worker’s compensation records, news accounts, OSHA reports and other documentation

Another often-cited statistic comes from the Fatal Accident Reporting System, which counts passing motorists and others among the people who die annually in highway work-zone accidents. ATSSA cites 868 deaths annually, including workers and motorists. In a May 24 statement, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association quoted almost 900 fatalities and 39,000 injuries in 1999.

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