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Industry Updates

How to Improve Safety on Your Highway Projects


Highway construction projects can be dangerous for both workers onsite and the motoring public due to a variety of unique circumstances. In fact, there are on average 123 construction worker fatalities on highway construction sites per year, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The same organization found that vehicle crashes in work zones have resulted in an average of 772 fatalities annually from 2015 to 2017. The numbers are telling – taking steps to ensure safety on highway construction projects is not optional, but imperative. Here are key steps that construction organizations can take to improve the safety of their highway projects. 

Traffic Control Requirements 

Prioritizing safety for workers starts with developing an internal traffic control plan, which addresses the equipment, vehicles, workers and inspectors operating on-site, as well as an external traffic control plan for vehicles passing through the site. 

It is important to note the traffic control plan for vehicles passing through the work zone should follow the requirements of the specific jurisdiction where the job is being performed, as the standards can vary from state to state. While there are several items that the internal traffic control plan should cover, a few stand out in my mind as must-haves: 

• If at all possible, parking areas for worker vehicles, equipment staging areas and stored materials should be separated from where the work is actually taking place to avoid clutter, relieve congestion and increase overall visibility. Only essential construction vehicles, equipment and materials should be in active work areas. 

• Workers driving through work areas in vehicles and operating equipment need to use all safety devices and be mindful of their colleagues on foot, and vice versa. Back-up and travel alarms must be able to be heard over the noise on-site and all workers should follow established protocol when approaching equipment in operation. All workers should be aware of “No-Zones” around equipment and should not enter these areas without the operator being aware.

• For vehicles operating on-site in work areas, I recommend a back in/pull out policy and setting up designated turnaround areas to minimize backing, if possible. Blind spots should be eliminated to the extent possible. If a circumstance does require a vehicle to move in reverse, the driver should get out of the vehicle to check behind them and use a spotter to assist, if a spotter is available. Even if the vehicle has a rear-view camera on it, it can be difficult to confirm if there is a worker in the vehicle’s reverse path. 

• Last but not least, especially in the winter, the internal traffic control plan should account for snow and ice removal (if work is taking place in an area prone to winter weather) in active work areas and address slip and fall protection for those on foot.

Processes and Training

In addition to the traffic control plans, projects must establish safe work procedures and ensure workers know those procedures and are following them. For instance, if Class 3 high-visibility clothing is required, all workers should have on said clothing. Another example I’ve seen more recently is banning the use of cell phones in active work areas, with cell phone usage only permitted in designated areas. This helps to address distractions that could result in an incident. 

For both new and veteran workers, ongoing training is needed, and is very important. Workers should know safe work procedures for the tasks they will perform. Daily safety huddles, at the beginning of shift and as job tasks and/or conditions change, raise the awareness and provide an opportunity to discuss the procedures for the specific tasks performed. Calling a timeout and addressing safe work procedures as job conditions change is a simple step that can go a long way to ensure everyone goes home safely at the end of the shift.  

External Threats

With internal processes and requirements set, it is important for companies to manage the risks from external threats, such as drivers speeding or not paying attention when passing through work zones. This is a primary concern for any highway construction project. 

Whether speeding or distracted, a driver could strike a worker or hit traffic control devices. Working behind hard barriers is preferred, but not always practical, so highway contractors must continuously inspect and maintain their traffic control pattern to ensure they are doing everything reasonably possible to protect their workers.   

To better enforce the speeding issue, some states are already taking action. For example, the state of Pennsylvania recently installed speed cameras in some active highway work zones to discourage drivers from traveling above the posted speed limit.

If speeding drivers become an issue for a given project, I suggest that companies talk to local law enforcement to see if they have resources available to enforce the posted speed limit throughout the work zone. Any assistance from law enforcement to slow down traffic coming through work zones is appreciated.  

By putting these processes in place, highway construction projects will be safer for all workers. However, if an incident should occur, I always recommend getting to the root cause of the incident and identifying possible trends in order to mitigate additional exposures. 

Near misses should be tracked as they present an opportunity to take another look at current procedures in order to decrease the risk of something major happening in the future. If you’re unsure where to start, consult an experienced insurance broker with knowledge of work zone safety, who can help develop and implement a safety program tailored to your project’s specific needs. 

Mark Troxell is senior vice president of safety services for Graham Company.