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Life Inside the Cone Zones

By Steven H. Miller, CDT

The bright yellow electric sign warns that there’s construction ahead. The work lights above the nighttime highway are dazzlingly bright. Dust shimmers in the air. Signs, lines and flashing signals warn drivers to slow down and be alert. And yet, cars and trucks are whizzing through the work zone at full speed, as though it were any other stretch of road, the drivers sometimes even texting as they go. And every once in a while, one of them slams through the line of orange cones or barrels and rips into the jobsite, out of control, blazing a trail of injury and death.

The people “inside the cones” live with that risk every day and night they work. AGC of America recently surveyed members who build highway projects about their experiences with work zone crashes. The results suggest a strong consensus within the industry about the nature of the problem and some agreement about how to combat it. (You can find the survey results at http://www.agc.org/galleries/news/2014_Work_Zone_Survey-National.pdf.)

AGC is publicizing the survey as part of an effort to raise awareness among the public about the hazards of driving in work zones, and what drivers need to do to lower the tragic statistics. Constructor talked to a number of contractors and AGC executives to get better insight into the situation behind the survey numbers.

“Work zone safety has been a big issue for our members for a long time,” explains Brian Deery, senior director, highway & transportation division, AGC of America. “About 15 years ago, there started to be a steady increase in these injuries and fatalities, and we did a number of things to highlight the problem, working with state and local agencies. We made some progress, but there’s been an uptick of late, and we think a new awareness is necessary.”

Of the highway contractors surveyed, 45 percent had one or more vehicle crashes in their construction work zones in the past year. Those accidents resulted in construction worker injury 20 percent of the time, including 6 percent that involved the death of one or more workers. The casualty rate for drivers and passengers in the cars was even higher, with 43 percent of the crashes resulting in injury to vehicle occupants, including 16 percent with fatalities.

Why do these accidents occur? There is near universal agreement among leaders on this issue that the single greatest cause is excessive speed.

“The motoring public wants to get through the work zone as fast as possible,” explains Lee Cole, vice president of environmental health & safety, US operations for Oldcastle Materials, a member of multiple AGC chapters.

However, roadwork often causes changes to the driving path through the work zone. Multiple striping confuses motor vehicle operators; barriers, barrels, and cones create confusing patterns. Drivers must navigate through bright lights during night work and unfamiliar signage, as well as other alterations of the work zone. Construction vehicles may be entering the roadway from unexpected locations. “A high rate of speed reduces their ability to get through the work zone safely,” explains Cole. Slower speed allows the driver time to process unfamiliar information and react to the unexpected.

The other problem concerns distracted or impaired drivers. While there is a strong public focus on the dangers of texting while driving, phone conversations, voice mail, even eating while driving can be significant distractions, too. “When you have distractions, text messages, voice mails,” says Tom Brown, president, Sierra Pacific West, an AGC San Diego Chapter member, “all you have to do is take your eyes off the road for a second and it can be disastrous.”

Although there’s wide agreement about speed and driver attention as roots of the problem, there are also significant actions contractors can take to help keep workers safe.

By far, the largest consensus around creating driver awareness is that speed laws and enforcement are key. Laws regarding work zone safety vary from state to state. Some states, for example, do not yet have laws mandating reduced speed limits in work zones, and contractors believe those laws should be implemented.

Getting legislation passed, however, can be a frustrating process. “Every politician,” explains Brown, “is afraid of the constituents. They get complaints about road building because of traffic delays. Everybody wants the same amount of road to travel down, everyone wants wide lanes, and people are unwilling to give up lanes even for short periods of time. So it is difficult to get legislation passed. But we need to lend room to the construction worker who’s working in that zone.” According to the survey, most contractors believe a greater police presence and tougher penalties are needed. “Laws vary from state to state,” says Deery, “but they’re effective if they’re enforced. Law enforcement tells us that it’s difficult, they’ve got a big area to cover, the work zone is not any different from any other stretch, and it’s difficult to pull people over in work zones. But we’ve found that when there is enforcement, people slow down.”

“The laws are there,” declares Bob Lanham, president, Williams Brothers Construction Company in Houston, Texas, an AGC of Texas Highway, Heavy, Utilities & Industrial Branch member. “If we could get a focused enforcement in work zones, that would be a deterrent. If someone’s speeding through a work zone, write the tickets. That’s what alters people’s behavior.”

“Even when the speed limit is lowered in the work zone,” points out Cole, “that’s not complied with. You want law enforcement there with his blue lights on to slow the traffic, but you also want him to be able to pursue when there is a speeder.”

“I think it’s a good deterrent,” agrees Billy Norrell, CEO of AGC Alabama. “I think the best bet is to have additional law enforcement there.”

“We like seeing a patrol car assist our workers,” adds Brown, “but the problem is, there’s a cost to it. It’s a cost against the budget of the project, so sometimes it’s a sensitive issue as to whether a project is moving forward or not.”

In a sense, it is surprising that it’s not written into the budget, since the cost of a crash can be significant. According to the survey, 25 percent of work zone crashes caused jobsite shutdowns, 38 percent of those lasting two days or more, delaying the return to free-flowing traffic even further.

The irony is that the effectiveness of a law enforcement presence is widely recognized, even in places that do not budget for paying an officer to be on hand. “Some states actually take a patrol car and put a phony guy in it,” relates Tom Brown. “They put it out at the beginning of the project with the lights flashing. It’s a great deterrent. The presence definitely has an effect.”

Other than deterrents, there is also persuasion. Public awareness and education programs exist. National Work Zone Awareness Week, sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA), the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA), is held every April since 1999. But more is needed.

There have been a number of creative campaigns in different states aimed at focusing the driver’s attention on work zone speed. One campaign used in a number of states has a message along the lines of “Slow Down, my Mommy (or Daddy) Works Here.” Another campaign, from Tennessee, shows a car ripping through an office, with the words, “We don’t speed through your workplace. Please don’t speed in ours.”

“Those are the kind of signs that get people’s attention,” points out Cole, “but we have to get permission [from the DOT or other owner of the project] to put signs like that out there. In some states it’s hard to get permission.”

The creativity of these campaigns is important, too. The cleverness of “Click it or Ticket” stuck in many people’s minds, and a similar sort of need is seen to make the public focus on work zone safety.“Signage has to be something new,” suggests Brown. “Fines are doubled. I’ve seen that a zillion times. I’ve seen the flashing lights. You need to do something creative that forces you to look at that sign. Change it up.”

Another notion is to reach out to drivers through the state DMVs. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” suggests Brown, “if even the simplest license test had a special section about construction and construction zones?”

Getting drivers to respect the work zone – one way or the other – is vital, but it is not the only thing that can be done to protect workers. A variety of physical protections are possible, there are safe behaviors that can be trained, and there are ways that contractors can interact with communities, DOTs and legislatures.

Positive barriers, such as the Jersey barrier, are probably the most effective protection. The large number of the reported crashes that resulted in driver or passenger injuries (but no worker injuries) may have been the result of positive barriers protecting the workers, but still resulted in damage to the vehicle and thus injuries to the occupants.

Movable barriers, such as striping, are now also available. Another effective type of barrier is the Truck Mounted Attenuator (TMA), a crash truck with a sacrificial trailer that can block the route of a vehicle intrusion and absorb the force of a vehicle hitting it.

As with anything else brought into the construction site, however, there is a cost factor. In some places, that cost is accepted as a necessary part of construction and included in the bid. In places where it is not required to bid, safety inevitably gets shaved down to remain competitive.

Warning devices can also be helpful. Rumble strips at the entrance to the work zone warn a driver to slow down. Work zone intrusion alarms can alert workers as a vehicle crosses into a restricted space. If the alarm trigger is mounted at the beginning of a buffer zone before the actual construction area, the alarm can give workers a chance to get out of the danger area before the vehicle arrives.

However, use of these options is not always up to the contractor. Work zone setup is usually mandated in the design; changes, even for safety, often require owner approval, and they can’t always get it.

Contractors feel caught in the middle on many of these safety issues. They are at the mercy of drivers, and they often must ask permission from the public agencies (i.e., owners) to make any changes, even if it’s just to protect their workers. But the DOTs, says Deery, “are focused on mobility. They’re more concerned about impacting the driving public than on protecting workers in the work zone.”

To help improve safety, contractors can work more actively in the community. They can engage with lawmakers and state agencies to mandate better practices, and they can work with the public directly.

Explaining your presence to the community can ease a lot of tension and get local buy-in to the construction project. When Sierra Pacific goes into a new neighborhood, the company distributes a brochure, one that caters to that particular environment. “If there are kids around,” Brown says, “we have a brochure we hand out showing kids the things they shouldn’t do, like climbing on the machines, etc.”

Another valuable effort is working more closely with state and local agencies. “In Texas, we, as an industry, have a great relationship with our DOT, our Transit Taskforce,” relates Lanham. “We sit down and look at safety issues and evaluate new technologies and whether they’ve got merit.”

Lee Cole has seen how effective that engagement can be. “In Texas, they’ve taken work zone intrusion in the past 12-13 months and really addressed it, in what we feel is one of the more effective ways in the U.S. They’re providing money for extra traffic control devices, they meet with contractors to address work zone intrusion concerns and any potential corrective action needed. They are very proactive in looking at mitigating work zone intrusions.”

Tom Brown believes a similar type of outreach is needed to get safety written into the law. “I think there should be a sit-down with your local legislators or rulemakers so they really fully understand what the construction worker is up against. They can be partners with us if we help them understand what our workers are facing. We really need to have an open dialogue with the industry and the legislators.”

While most contractors today are safety conscious, run safety training and have active safe-practices enforcement, the value of training should still be emphasized. “It makes our workers cognizant of the environment they work in,” points out Brown. “Not turning your back, or not putting your arm past a barrier; those sound simple, but they can be major if there’s an incident.”

Oldcastle Materials even publishes its own manual, Best Practices for Mitigating the Effects of Work Zone Intrusions, which they distribute to their workers. Contractors can get involved at the state and local level to try to help major players outside the industry to understand the situation and the steps necessary to improve it. AGC is part of a coordinated effort with the National Asphalt Paving Association (NAPA) and the American Road Builders and Transportation Association (ARBTA) to create a better working relationship between contractors and DOTs. Contact an AGC chapter and get involved in making highway work places safer.