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June 11, 2009

We’ve heard it many times before: Roadway construction is dangerous work. Heavy and highway worker injury and fatality rates are the highest in the construction trades.

The primary cause of death and injury: workers being run over by motorists and construction equipment. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—echoed by insurance industry claims over the past several years—illustrate what is maiming our work force.

We’ve heard it many times before: Roadway construction is dangerous work. Heavy and highway worker injury and fatality rates are the highest in the construction trades.

The primary cause of death and injury: workers being run over by motorists and construction equipment. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—echoed by insurance industry claims over the past several years—illustrate what is maiming our work force.

Traditional safety-control measures apply to roadway construction like any other industry. First, eliminate the hazard through engineering. In our industry this could mean closing the road to traffic and keeping workers on foot away from equipment.

Second, if the hazard cannot be eliminated, use administrative controls to keep workers away. Setting up positive separation between workers and motorists, such as a concrete barrier, is a way to accomplish the goal. The ability to keep workers away from construction equipment remains a challenge, however, because many duties necessitate interaction with equipment.

Third, if the hazard cannot be removed by engineering or administrative controls, then as a last resort protect the worker from the hazard. That is where personal protective equipment (PPE) comes into play.

Looking your safest

The common image of a roadway construction worker for many is someone wearing a brightly colored vest and holding a “stop-slow” paddle on the side of the road. In reality, there is a lot more to the PPE requirements. Just a few months ago, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) clarified its regulation on PPE, removing ambiguities about the employer’s duty to pay for it and provide it to workers. As such, employers need to take more than just a passing interest in what their workers are wearing.

To assist employers and workers in complying with federal regulations and understanding the appropriate use of PPE, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) recently developed a new English/Spanish training video covering the more prevalent types of PPE needed in roadway construction. The video contains a segment of company officials and safety managers, and most importantly a segment that should be seen by industry workers. More information can be found at www?.artbastore?.org. The following contains some highlights from the video.

High-visibility clothing

New regulations issued by the Federal Highway Administration require almost everyone working in the right-of-way of a federal-aid highway to be dressed in a minimum ANSI Class II vest. The makeup of these vests is explained in a standard known as the ANSI/ISEA 107 “American National Standard for High-Visibility Apparel.” This standard describes three classes of vests. An ANSI Class I or “unrated” vest is not appropriate for roadway construction workers. The most common class of garment for road construction work is Class II. A Class II vest will not likely have sleeves, but is closed on the sides and must be fastened in front to provide coverage all the way around. The background fabric must be fluorescent, and it will have retroreflective tape on the front, back and sides.

A Class III garment is appropriate for night work and some daylight situations where workers need maximum visibility. Class III garments may be created by adding pants (Class E) to a Class II vest or by using a vest or jacket that covers the full torso and has full or partial sleeves.

When deciding which workers need to wear vests, ARTBA recommends anyone working near traffic or construction equipment be dressed in at least a Class II vest. It is important to note workers are not just struck by motorists; over half of the workers who are killed in highway construction are struck by construction trucks and equipment. Workers must be visible to motorists and operators alike.

When choosing a vest, consider the appropriate fluorescent color. Some states have specific regulations as to the color of the vest. If your jurisdiction is not specific, follow the ANSI/ISEA standard that requires the worker to be distinguished from the background. In other words, if workers are around a lot of orange barrels and equipment, yellow-green might be the best color. If they are working around green foliage and trees, orange-red would be best.


Another common part of the PPE ensemble that distinguishes construction workers is the hardhat. For roadwork, ARTBA recommends that workers wear hardhats at all times, unless protected in the cab of vehicles or equipment. While there may not be visible overhead hazards, workers are commonly struck by rocks or debris propelled by passing vehicles, swinging materials and moving equipment.

Hardhats are carefully designed and tested to protect workers from a variety of impacts. The helmet shell and suspension work together to absorb the impact of falling or flying objects.

Unless the hardhat is specially designed to have the suspension rotated, all hardhats must be worn with the brim to the front to protect the face from falling objects and excessive sun exposure.

Also, hardhats now come in fluorescent colors and can be purchased with retroreflective tape. The right hardhat can be part of the high-visibility ensemble to ensure workers are visible to motorists and construction operators while working.

Hearing protection

A silent injury for construction workers is hearing loss. After just 15 to 20 years in construction work, many workers suffer permanent hearing loss or hear constant ringing in their ears. This is not only a problem on the job, but affects family and personal life. Also, on roadway construction jobs, too much noise can distract workers or cover the sounds of backup alarms or other warnings. This background noise has many causes, such as heavy equipment, pile driving, pavement breakers and traffic.

A good rule of thumb when considering whether one needs hearing protection is to pay attention and notice if you must shout to talk with someone 3 ft or less away from you. If so, you need protection. While this hazard may not show up in the BLS data, it is a common long-term illness caused by work in a noisy environment.

Respiratory protection

Breathing (respiratory) protection can be critical, especially if workers are cutting or breaking asphalt or concrete where silica may be released. Silica exposures lead to a serious lung disease called “silicosis,” which causes premature death.

In many situations dust masks are sufficient. Other exposures require respirators. If there are exposures to lead fumes, silica and other harmful substances, respirators are likely to be needed. Employers must be familiar with specific standards that cover the types of respirators that are needed for specific hazards. Respirators require training and fit testing. Crew leaders and supervisors must make sure the company provides the right equipment to protect workers from the hazards to which they are exposed.

As explained in ARTBA’s video, there are many other types of PPE that are commonly required for roadway construction work, including eye protection, gloves and work boots. Company leaders need to know what is required to keep their crews safe. Those who purchase PPE also must be able to recognize quality equipment that meets safety standards.

Nearly every item of PPE should meet product standards and bear the mark of the standard. The mark certifies that it has been tested and evaluated and meets all U.S. requirements. Common certifying marks include ANSI, the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI), Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Many industry observers expect a record construction season this year, given the infusion of funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus bill. It is the roadway construction industry’s duty to make sure worker deaths and injuries don’t increase with the stepped-up construction. A good PPE program will go a long way toward ensuring that workers remain safe on the job.

About The Author: Sant is vice president of safety and education at ARTBA, Washington, D.C. For more information on ARTBA’s PPE video, visit

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