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Work zone safety: protecting the worker

By Tim McGrath, Field Director, Construction Risk Control

Have you ever noticed what drivers are doing other than driving while behind the wheel? Some people say that newer cars and trucks are so easy to drive that drivers feel compelled to do other things instead of focusing on driving. I am sure you have observed drivers eating, reading books or newspapers, texting, talking on phones and all kinds of other activities instead of focusing 100 percent on driving. Then you put a work zone in their path and expect them to pay greater attention. Then we have impaired driving. In the town where I live (Tampa Bay, Fla.), last year we had 11 wrong-way driver deaths attributed to impaired driving.

Impaired and distracted driving has made protecting workers on the road and in right-of-ways more challenging today than ever. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, 106 construction workers were fatally injured in road construction sites in 2010*.

To better address work zone safety, contractors may need to rely on proactive well planned approaches, as well as new techniques to help protect workers.

High-Visibility Clothing and Worker Training

High-visibility clothing and proper training are a good starting point. To promote work zone safety, road construction workers should wear proper high visibility attire and be trained in the hazards of work zones and how to take steps to protect themselves.

Written Traffic Control Plans

A proactive approach to work safety may direct that all work zones have written temporary traffic control plans prepared by qualified persons following the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) and state specifications before work is commenced. To continue to promote work zone safety, the traffic control plan should then be installed, inspected and maintained under the supervision of qualified persons.

Setting up the Traffic Control Plan

Part of a proactive approach is considering how to protect workers when they are setting up, maintaining or removing traffic control devices. This can be a dangerous stage in the process. It is best to consider the type of vehicle workers are using to stage and set up the traffic control elements. A crash attenuator vehicle, or a shadow vehicle with a crash attenuator vehicle, may be considered to provide worker protection from passing vehicles. 

Positive Protection          

When designing the temporary traffic control plan consideration for the use of positive protection should be made whenever possible. Positive protection is the use of concrete barrier walls, trailer-mounted portable barriers, moveable barriers, water-filled barriers and vehicle restraint systems used to separate workers from traffic providing a means of positive protection. The use of positive protection is one of the best methods of protecting workers from traffic passing through the work zone.

Internal Traffic Control Plans

Next it is important to consider internal work zone traffic control plans to promote the safe movement of workers, vehicles and equipment within the work zone. Ground workers should be minimized, or eliminated, in areas where equipment and vehicles are operating. Backing vehicles present a significant risk to pedestrian workers. Internal Traffic Control Plans should consider designating areas where vehicles and equipment are backing as pedestrian worker free areas. It is also important to train workers how to safely work around heavy equipment, including information on how to approach equipment and identify blind spots for equipment. Our Safety Academy training program Working Safely Around Heavy Equipment covers these areas. Backup alarms, rear view video devices, proximity alarms and spotters are methods to promote safe backing of equipment and vehicles. Training operators, drivers and spotters in safe backing practices should also be considered in the plan. 

Other methods to promote a safer work zone include:

  • Reducing the speed limit
  • Closing the roadway, when feasible
  • Using advance warning portable rumble strips
  • Increasing the use of law enforcement

Maintaining a quality workforce is one of the greatest challenges for many highway street and road contractors. Take positive steps now to protect your most valuable resource – your workers.

For more information about work zone safety, log in to the Risk Control Customer Portal and search “work zone” in the keyword search.


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