The Smart Road to Safer Highway Construction

If you drive down Interstate highways with any frequency, you’ve probably noticed the growing attention to protecting workers in construction sites. From soft-sell signs in childish script that tell you “my Daddy works here” to stepped-up patrols by law enforcement officers, you’ll see all sorts of efforts to reduce the chances that workers will have deadly encounters with passing vehicles.

Despite all that attention, you may be surprised to find out that traffic/worker incidents aren’t the biggest hazard in construction sites. Understanding the real dangers and learning ways to mitigate them are important for highway crews, as well as for other companies whose workers may find themselves performing tasks around fast-moving traffic.

While media coverage may lead you to believe that deadly accidents are rampant, today’s highway system is increasingly becoming safer, according to the Federal Highway Administration. In 2015 (the latest year for which such statistics were available), there were roughly 1.13 fatalities for every 100 million miles of travel, compared to 5.50 fatalities in 1966. Although that rate is lower, there is still a significant number of deaths and injuries on highways. During 2015, more than 32,000 people died on American roads.

How do those overall totals compare to incidents in highway worksites? FHWA says that there were 669 work zone fatalities in 2014— or 1.8 every day — accounting for 2 percent of all highway fatalities. But most of those fatalities were actually motorists who became involved in accidents within work zones, not highway workers.

Still, highway work zones are inherently dangerous places for workers, which is why such a great effort has been devoted to improving work zone markings and vehicle flow. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, workers being hit by passing motorists make up less than half of the vehicle-related fatalities suffered by highway workers. Those workers are more likely to be killed by construction vehicles operating in the worksite, says NIOSH. Most people would assume that most fatal incidents occur during darkness, but three-quarters of highway worksite fatalities occurred during daylight hours.

Given that record, the importance of proper safety activities when working on or around highways becomes obvious. There are many steps that companies can take to reduce the risks to their worker.

Start with a plan
As with most worker safety activities, a comprehensive safety plan provides a solid foundation. It’s important that the safety profession responsible for developing the plan have a thorough understanding of both OSHA regulations and the standards outlined in the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The safety plan should include a hazard assessment that identifies and describes the risks workers may face, with steps and personal protective measures that can be taken to protect the works from those risks.

Provide rules and training
The better that your workers understand the dangers, the more eager they’ll be to protect themselves. Start by establishing a set of rules that are specific to the site and nature of the project, and ensure that all workers are thoroughly familiar with them and understand the consequences of noncompliance. Train workers so that they understand how to work safely around traffic. Be sure that those responsible for controlling traffic around the site know the safest practices to follow.

Develop safer work areas
Study the worksite to look for ways to allow workers and vehicles to move through safely. Set up specific routes for traffic flow and areas where workers can safely enter and leave the site. Be sure that all utilities are marked, and establish procedures to provide protection when equipment is backing up or otherwise moving through areas where it may come in contact with workers.

Improve visibility
Since statistics show that most accidents happen during daylight hours, it’s important to take steps to improve visibility of both workers and equipment. That includes everything from high-visibility and reflective work apparel to warning lights on trucks. If night work is to be performed, temporary lighting will both make work easier and make the workers more visible.

Keep traffic away from workers
The more strategies you can use to separate the workers from the traffic, the safer they’ll be. How much separation you’ll need depends upon the nature of the worksite, as well as the average traffic speed and volume. In addition to traffic barriers, you may want to consider other devices, such as rumble strips that remind drivers that they’re entering a work zone, and message signs that remind them to slow down. Highly visible law enforcement is also an excellent way to slow traffic.

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