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The Importance of Work Zone Safety

As the world reopens and construction projects ramp up following two years of a worldwide pandemic, vehicular accidents in work zones are increasing. A recent study conducted by AGC of America and HCSS reveals that 64% of highway contractors experienced crashes into their work zones during the past year, (an uptick from 60% in last year’s survey). In addition, an overwhelming majority, 97% percent, report that highway work zones are either as dangerous, or more dangerous, than they were a year ago.

johnny walton and his wifeJohnny Walton and his wife, Kathy, are huge supporters of National Work Zone Safety Week.

This is not an industry-only problem. According to the survey results, motorists are in even greater danger from highway work zone crashes than construction workers. Eighteen percent of contractors experienced crashes that resulted in injury to construction workers. But more than twice as many firms — 41% — reported experiencing a crash in which drivers or passengers were injured. The latter group is also twice as likely to be killed in work zone crashes, citing 7% of contractors reporting that construction workers were killed in work zone crashes, while 15% report drivers or passengers were killed in those crashes.

“The men and women of the construction industry are frequently working just a few feet, and sometimes inches, away from speeding vehicles,” says Ken Simonson, chief economist, AGC of America. “Drivers who are too often distracted, speeding and/or under-the-influence crash into those work zones, putting workers and themselves at risk of serious harm and death.”

Vicki Stephenson, a senior safety consultant at Sentry Insurance, says work zone safety is extremely important — especially in today’s world with accidents and their mounting costs on the rise.

“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 100 fatalities and more than 15,000 injuries to workers in the highway and street construction industry each year. The reality is, accidents will occur, which is why preparing and protecting your construction workers is essential. Developing and/or updating your standard traffic control plan is an invaluable first step toward reducing risk.”

Highway work zones tend to be more hazardous due to faster speed limits and distracted drivers. Because of this, work zones are a necessary part of maintaining safety in any highway system.

Charlotte Kopf, manager of the Mobile Section of the Alabama AGC, says for the past 20 years AGC has participated in National Work Zone Awareness Week, which encourages safe driving through highway work zones. The key message is for drivers to use extra caution in these areas.

“However, a renewed interest in the importance of getting our message out to the driving public began in earnest once Marshall Walton was killed by a distracted driver in 2015,” says Kopf.

“Marshall was the son of one of our longtime members — Johnny and Kathy Walton of John G. Walton Construction Co., Inc. — and had been involved with AGC his entire life. He was only 25 and was the future of Johnny’s company.”

TRAGIC ACCIDENT

The horrible incident occurred in 2015 when a distracted driver crashed into Marshall’s work zone killing him instantly. Marshall had been working on a road in a designated work zone when the crash occurred. The driver apparently never slowed down.

“Somehow, the vehicle homicide law had been repealed in Alabama, so the driver who killed our son suffered no consequences,” says Johnny Walton. “After our son died, we took it upon ourselves — with the help of our Legislature and the District Attorney’s Association — to pass the vehicular homicide law in Alabama. And the law is named after our son. The Marshall J. Walton Highway Safety Act is punishable from one to nine years depending on the circumstances.”

One of the area’s local legislators came up with the idea to honor Marshall by dedicating a bridge in his name, which Walton explained required a resolution passed by the Alabama Legislature and signed by the governor. The bridge was recently named the Marshall James Walton Memorial Bridge and is located on a road project that is being built by Walton’s company not far from the accident site.

“This bridge not only represents our son, but every worker who has been killed in work zones. By changing laws and working to bring awareness to work zone dangers, we hope other lives can be saved,” says Walton.

When asked what must be done to help reduce work zone incidents, Walton says, “There needs to be more barricades to protect workers and drivers. That’s the big thing, and you have to get people to slow down and put their cell phones down.”

a memorial commemorating marshall
A memorial commemorating Marshall Walton, who was killed in 2015 at the age of 25 by a distracted driver.

INCREASING WORK ZONE SAFETY AWARENESS

Simonson says that construction firms are taking steps to improve work zone safety, through special training programs, new technology and software made available by firms like HCSS. He stresses that public officials need to take steps to better protect highway work zones, by boosting police presence and enacting tougher laws and penalties for drivers using their cell phones.

“”In many cases,” adds Steve McGough, president and CEO of HCSS, “vehicle speeding contributes to these crashes. Utilizing speed cameras with a zero-tolerance policy would go a long way to protect the traveling public and our workforce.”

Roman Clayton is one of the managing partners at C&H Construction Services, LLC in Mobile, and is also a member of the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) Guardrail Committee.

“The importance of work zone safety is at an all time high,” he says.

“The percentage of distractive driving continues to increase because of the use of cell phones and other technology.”

Clayton stresses that the construction industry needs to understand that traffic control measures must be performed and maintained at a high quality and comprehensive level to protect both the traveling public and workers.

“Often, construction companies fail to express the fact that the amount of road user deaths far outnumbers the deaths of construction workers. We need to realize that how we perform our traffic control schemes constitutes whether our worker returns to his family, as well as the traveler returning to their families. As construction workers, we are faced with handling increased speeds, distracted driving, more users, and more projects, all increasing the severity of work zone crashes.”

Work zone safety awareness is increased by planning and giving the traveling public information about what lies ahead. This can be done through public service announcements, DOT notifications to Google maps, and other driver-assisted mapping program apps.

“Contractors have many tools available for use to help them protect themselves and the traveling public,” explains Clayton. “Rumble strips, speed radar trailers, attenuator trucks and trailers, portable signals, automated flagging devices, message boards are many of the items that will increase safety. State DOTs need to be proactive in approving these innovations as often as possible. Contractors also need to realize that by using and setting these items up is often cutting into production time, but it is far more important than the alternative — the death of one or more of their employees or one or more travelers.”

Jenifer Eubanks, a professional civil engineer and the Mobile area assistant construction engineer at the Alabama Department of Transportation, was a project manager in 2015 when the accident that took Marshall Walton’s life occurred. She knew the young man. She agrees that the construction industry needs to prioritize safe handling of traffic in the work zone, not only for the traveling public, but for the workers too.

“This is a team effort, and it will take everyone to accomplish the goal of safer work zones. Whether as a driver or a worker, we have become conditioned to our surroundings and relax our awareness, which is hazardous and sometimes deadly. Historically, safety devices and handling of traffic have taken a backburner to the road work itself. Worker safety has been left up to the industry and has been combined with the logic that drivers would self-govern themselves once warned of the work taking place. The statistics show that this logic is ineffective, and that change is necessary to achieve safer work zones.”

Skip Powe, principal at Smith Seckman Reid, Inc., an engineering firm and Alabama AGC and Carolinas AGC member, believes the answer to increasing work zone safety is three-fold: education/training; public relations and communication; and partnering with owners to ensure they understand the industry’s need for more and better safety measures.

“Education/training starts internally with regular safety meetings and toolbox talks with project managers, superintendents, foremen, operators and laborers, regardless of each’s experience level, in order to promote and emphasize a culture of safety and to repel off complacency within the company and its workforce. Public relations and communication are an absolute must in this day and age, especially with all the various media and social media outlets there are.”

He also says events such as National Work Zone Awareness Week (NWZAW) are a good starting point to emphasize the importance of safe driving through highway work zones and to communicate to drivers to use extra caution in work zones.

“However, this effort cannot be limited to one week per year. It’s critical that the message is communicated regularly, especially during peak construction periods and high profile/high traffic projects. Furthermore, since distracted driving incidents continue to increase, the construction industry must partner with owners to change Maintenance of Traffic plans and specifications to provide for new and emerging technologies and practices, as well as using portable barriers in lieu of cones and drums for long-term lanes closures and work areas.”

Perhaps Morris King, a senior account manager at Vulcan Materials, a member of multiple AGC chapters, and the owner and handler of Millie the K9 ambassador for Work Zone Safety, sums it up best.

“Due to the senseless actions of a driver not paying attention, Marshall Walton never got the opportunity to chase his dreams and run the family business. He will never get to watch the sunrise on the gulf or catch another red snapper. And, we will never know how Marshall’s life might have unfolded past the 25 years he spent here on this earth because a driver was distracted and did not pay attention in Marshall’s work zone.”