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Safe Space



Construction work zones create hazards for drivers and workers but steps exist to providing a safer workplace.


A recent AGC of America survey of nearly 400 highway contractors found 67 percent of the firms reported at least one intrusion of a motor vehicle into one of their construction work zones during the past year. While drivers and passengers are at risk of injury or death, so are workers. The survey reported 28 percent of work zone crashes injured workers and 8 percent of the accidents killed a worker.

“There are simply too many cars crashing into too many work zones, putting too many lives at risk,” says Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives at AGC of America. “That is why we are launching a nationwide outreach effort designed to better educate motorists about the need to drive with care in highway work zones.”

Seventy-nine percent of the surveyed contractors suggested a greater police presence would help to reduce crashes and injuries, followed by stricter enforcement of existing laws, and stricter laws against cell phone usage and distracted drivers. “No amount of saved time, and certainly no social media post or text, is worth the safety of [drivers, passengers] or the men and women working on our roads,” says Turmail.

In addition, contractors can take action to prevent unnecessary risks.


One of the most important places to start is to create a culture of safety, says Jerry Ullman, PhD, PE, a senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

“Do not treat it superficially,” he advises. “Some contractors have strong safety programs and spend time understanding the safety risk.”

Ullman acknowledges some contractors do not think they have the resources to develop a robust program, but worker safety should always be a priority. He urges companies “to establish business and safety processes that are not debatable.”

“Culture is what you do when someone is not looking over your shoulder,” says Ken Wengert, second vice president and regional director of Construction Risk Control at Travelers in Hartford, Connecticut, a member of multiple AGC chapters. “If you default to best practices, regardless of time constraints or complexities from outside the work zone, you will be more likely to be proactive and embrace safe practices.”


A safety culture includes empowering workers to promote safety and educating everyone in the work zone about hazards and safety.

“Workers are the first line of defense between themselves and an accident,” Ullman says. “Sometimes they underestimate the risks and take short cuts or don’t put in the extra effort.”

Wengert calls training and coaching essential, even for individuals who will only work with the company for a short period of time.

“We found, at Travelers, close to half of our workers’ compensation claims are for individuals who have been with the contractor for less than a year,” he says.

Kevin V. Gorman, PE, CCM, a civil engineer with Robson Forensic in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, suggests only using people with temporary traffic control (TTC) certification for TTC work.

Keep instructions simple, such as “sloped or shored or don’t go in,” “tie or die,” or “see and be seen,” says Timothy G. Galarnyk, CEO of Construction Risk Management in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.


Gorman and Galarnyk recommend starting with proper planning. Variables include traffic conditions, type of road and work, and the duration. Gorman suggests completing as much work as possible in off-peak hours. Work should be completed as quickly as possible.

“Every layer of safety reduces the risk,” he says. “It’s hazardous, no matter what you do.… There is nothing that will prevent all accidents.”

Galarnyk recommends detours, temporary roads or bridges to move traffic away from workers. Ultimately, the detour will cost less than an accident.


The contractor also should daily inspect the work zone, noting any needed maintenance, drop offs, uneven pavement or other concerns, and addressing those issues, Wengert says. The contractor also should check signs daily and assess whether they are set appropriately.

“By observing inspecting and maintaining the devices, you might identify an area of opportunity to improve safety,” Wengert says.

Gorman agrees that monitoring TTC for proper functionality and unreasonable queues is essential.


People operating in work zones should wear high-visibility vests, hard hats and if at night, reflective clothing and lights on their hard hats.

“Anything to make them stand out and different from the cones,” Gorman says.

Galarnyk suggests yellow or orange high visibility garments for highway work and brilliant blue or green in other construction.


When separated from the traveling public by concrete barriers, the risk to workers is reduced, Wengert says. Mobile barriers and attenuator trucks, which can absorb the impact of a crash, also can be used.

“The use of positive protection to separate traffic from the work space is a highly effective mitigation strategy,” Ullman says. However, “putting barriers everywhere may actually increase worker risk.”

This is because installing and removing barriers also creates risk for workers, he explains.

“When used properly, [such barriers] are effective,” Ullman says.


Reducing speed limits can help, but it also can create problems if it is set too slow.

“We know that using very low speed limits does not get everyone to slow down,” Ullman says. “A lot of intrusion events are people not paying attention. If one driver has slowed a lot, but the next driver has not and looks up at the last minute, that driver will instinctively turn the wheel to avoid the vehicle in front, potentially into the work zone.”


Contractors should follow Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices standards and engineering standards and judgment in setting up a traffic control zone.

“You want to provide guidance in a clear, positive and progressive manner to motorists,” Gorman says. “The goal is to avoid surprises, which can lead to accidents.”

Advance warning signs will help drivers know what is coming up, Wengert says. The signs should be placed farther from the work zone if there are hills or other visibility challenges.

Signs that change can catch drivers’ attention better than a standard static sign, to which drivers become accustomed, Ullman says.


When trucks and other equipment back up, it creates hazards for workers walking nearby. The equipment comes with beeping alarms, but workers who hear those sounds consistently may learn to ignore them.

Wengert suggests having spotters in areas where people are working or walking. Additionally, the contractor should develop an internal traffic control pattern, so everyone knows where trucks are operating.

“Those internal traffic control patterns should minimize backing up,” Wengert says. Equipment also should have warning lights and appropriate signage, Gorman says.


Intrusion detection alarms that sense motion beyond set barriers can notify workers when a vehicle has crossed into a work zone.

“The challenge is it becomes time sensitive,” Wengert says. “By the time a vehicle enters the work zone it may be difficult to respond.”

Looking ahead, Wengert suggests variable message boards or additional advance warning signs that use data provided from sensors to notify motorists of any delays, so people could take different routes.

Portable rumble sticks are an option for alerting a driver who is distracted when coming in to the work zone.

“The tactile vibration shakes people out of their distraction and gets them to look around,” Ullman says.

Intelligent transportation systems that monitor traffic flow and can alert drivers on signs about slow speeds ahead and options to take another route are effective. It also alerts authorities of an accident or stalled vehicle. Ullman reports the Federal Highway Administration encourages use of such systems.

“Smart work zone technology is a powerful tool,” Ullman says. “It has implications for worker safety.”


What contractors do today will influence future workers considering a construction career, Wengert says.

“How we protect current workers helps attract future workers,” he concludes. “How we onboard and lead those people becomes critical.”

Manual On Uniform Traffic Control Devices

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices defines the standards used by road managers nationwide to install and maintain traffic control devices on all public streets, highways, and private roads open to public traffic. The MUTCD is published by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) under 23 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 655, Subpart F. This manual also includes all 2012 revisions.

Please visit http://bit.ly/AGCStore_MUTCD to order your copy today.