Work Zone Safety

By Greg Sitek

The orange road warning sign says, “Caution Work Zone Ahead 1 Mile.” It’s followed by another stating the same thing except the distance has been reduced to a half mile, then another that indicates a need to merge left or right and reduce speed with

JBI Construction operator Eric Roos operates an E-Z Drill Model 210-2 SRA, a slab rider unit that rests on the existing concrete while drilling two dowel holes at a time.

another announcement that the fines are doubled when workers are present. Orange cones and barricades force the traffic to merge.

  • Over 40 percent of work zone crashes happen in the area before the actual work zone.
  • Road construction is the most dangerous occupation in the United States.
  • Work-zone crashes tend to be more severe than other types of crashes.
  • Drivers not paying attention is the biggest cause of work zone crashes.
  • Speeding is the next biggest problem.

Every year approximately 1,000 road construction workers are killed while on the job, and another 20,000 are injured.

Year Number of Work Zone Fatalities
2008 720
2007 835
2006 1004
2005 1058
2004 1063
2003 1095
2002 1186
2001 989
2000 1026

Information from National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse

As National Work Zone Awareness Week kicked off (April 6 – 10, 2009), U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a 17 percent drop in work zone fatalities and injuries.

Work zone fatalities and injuries have fallen over the last 10 years. The 17 percent drop in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, represents the sharpest single-year percentage decline since the week’s inception in 2000. The drop continues a multiyear trend of increasingly safe roads. There were 835 fatalities in 2007, down from 1,004 fatalities in 2006.

National Work Zone Awareness Week is a national campaign conducted at the start of construction season to encourage safe driving through highway construction sites. State, local and federal transportation officials observe it nationwide in April. This year it will be April 19-23, 2010.

The sad truth is that more than 50 percent of these incidents involve construction vehicles and heavy equipment operating within

In order to perform work on the Lloyd’s Expressway’s center lanes, JBI had to complete much of the project at night when traffic could be reduced to one lane.

work zones. Basic safety measures, proper training and the diligence of every person in a work zone can prevent a vast majority of these accidents.

Work zone safety management is not something that just happens. In 2001,The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and Engineering News Record (ENR) sponsored a Highway Work Zone Safety Summit in Washington, D.C., to develop a strategy for reducing fatalities, injuries and crashes.

The summit included top-level representatives from the construction industry, including labor and management; government at the national, state and local levels; highway users, including automobile and truck drivers; law enforcement organizations; the insurance industry; the trade press and other interested groups.

“We must reduce and eliminate these unnecessary fatalities and injuries. It is time for all of the parties with a vested interest in our highway system to come together to address this serious problem,” said AGC President Robert Desjardins, Cianbro Corporation, Pittsfield, Maine.

Desjardins continued, “Inherently, work zones create dangers to construction workers and motorists. As our nation’s highways age and our population expands, road construction will be necessary to meet growing needs. Highway work zones, therefore, will remain a fact of life in our country. That is why AGC and other groups have come together to develop a national strategy for safety.”

The summit included six working groups that made recommendations, which were then developed into a national strategy. The work groups focused on Designing and Improving Safety and Mobility in the Work Zone; Communicating Message to the Public and Trucking Community; Strategies for Enforcement of Speed Limits in Work Zones, Traffic Control Measures; Incorporating Traffic Management into the Planning Process; and Expediting Construction and Reducing Delays.

Each of the six working groups developed a list of recommendations, which were then presented to the entire assembly. Recurring themes evolved from more than 30 recommendations:

  • Elevate the importance of safety in work zones.
  • Increase the use of current communication technology to alert all drivers of existing work zones.
  • Improve the planning process to include work-zone safety in the preplanning stages and include all involved parties.
  • Impose mandatory training for workers and for drivers – driver education programs need to stress the importance of practicing good and safe driving skills in work zones.
  • Develop model contract specifications to include all aspects of work-zone safety to take this all-important issue out of the competitive bidding process.
  • Improve work-zone signage and design using innovative techniques to make the lanes look narrower and make drivers constantly aware of the fact they are in a work zone.
  • Make greater use of trained law enforcement personnel in work zones.

The construction markets that normally have the greatest exposure to work-zone safety are highway – any type of interstate, highway or road construction, repair or maintenance operation – as well as bridges and utility work that frequently have rights of

The job called for replacement of 8,200 square yards of 10-inch thick concrete, with patches ranging in size from 6 by 12 feet to as large as 250 by 16 feet.

way that parallel the interstate, highways or roads. The trade associations that serve these industries – AGC, National Asphalt Paving Association (NAPA), National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA), American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), American Concrete Pavement Association (ACPA), Asphalt Recycling & Reclaiming Association (ARRA), Concrete Sawing & Drilling Association (CSDA), and American Public Works Association (APWA) among other related associations – have or can direct you to training materials and/or standards for establishing and implementing work zone safety programs.

The FHWA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are also good resources for this type of information as well as training programs. For example, the “OSHA 10-Hour Training Exclusively for the Roadway Construction Industry” is available through ARTBA and the National Safety Council (NSC).

Each job site is individual in that there are characteristics about it that make it different if not unique than other similar sites. When you consider bidding a job, always consider the work zone aspects of the job. Proximity to the public or to public traffic – this can be foot traffic, bicycles, buses, horses, cars, motorcycles, trucks or anything that could or would move through, across, parallel to or in close proximity to the work zone. At this time we are only going to consider the work zone as it applies to roads and roadways.

Work Zone Safety Basics

Regardless of his or her job classification or assigned duties, every contractor and crewmember has a vested interest in promoting and maintaining a safe work zone.

There are a number of general topics that should be included as part of any work zone safety program, planning or implementation:

  • Traffic control
  • Ground crew safety
  • Equipment safety
  • Lighting and illumination

Traffic control – To be efficient and effective, traffic control plans need to be developed for the site. FHWA’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) Part 6 specifies standards for temporary traffic control programs ( When considering traffic control, the plans should include specifics on how public traffic will move in, around or through the work zone as well as how equipment will enter and leave the work zone. The details of these plans and programs should be included in all work zone-related personnel training, not just information for the crew that is assigned jobs on the site.

Ground crew safety – Personnel safety starts with proper attire. All ground crew workers are required to wear high-visibility safety apparel, such as retro-reflective armbands, hats and vests. Consult a reliable source for detailed information on what is considered acceptable. There are OSHA standards, and all of the work zone safety training programs contain detailed information on these standards.

The work zone should be designed and laid out to keep working crews away from moving equipment as much as possible. Truck traffic in and out of the area should travel on clearly marked and specified routes, and workers should be instructed to stay clear of these travel lanes. Work areas should be designed to avoid or decrease backing up and blind spots.

Everyone on the crew should be trained to maintain visual contact between those on the ground and the equipment operators. Equipment operators should never move a piece of equipment without making positive visual contact with nearby ground crew. Everyone should be trained in the use of hand signals in noisy environments.

Equipment safety – The right equipment on the job can make a considerable difference. For example, the city of Evansville, Ind., had a concrete patching job beginning in April 2008 on one of the busiest roads in the region, Indiana Highway 66, better known as the Lloyd Expressway. The patching was intended to solve some road issues presently considered minor before they could get worse, with the intention of extending the overall life of the road.

A phrase like “patching job” might give the inaccurate impression that such a project would be completed within mere hours or days. But considering the job includes repairing six miles of a major thoroughfare in both directions while keeping traffic flowing at all hours of the day, it lends perspective to how the task carried a six-month timetable for completion

The $1.9 million contract for the job was awarded to JBI Construction, Inc., a local company that handles all types of concrete construction projects, including residential curb and gutter, street, driveway and sidewalk paving. However, with the economy in its current state, JBI has seen a bit of a shift in its project portfolio. “With the housing market down and fewer subdivisions being built, we’re doing a lot more state work,” said John Stuteville, JBI’s shop foreman. The company handles about three large patching projects a year, with the average job’s overall size and cost being just a little smaller than the Lloyd Expressway assignment.

“Per the job specifications, we need to drill 1-inch holes for tie bars every three feet in the larger patches,” said Greg Ficker, crew foreman and operator for JBI. “In many cases using the slab rider unit would mean having the machine hanging out in traffic, so instead we use the on-grade unit. With the 210B, the machine and operator are down in the patch and out of the way.”

“Its maneuverability has been a big plus on this project,” said Stuteville. “With the requirements for maintaining open lanes of traffic, it would be much more difficult to pull off this job without it. It’s also been really useful for other off-road jobs we’ve worked on where we can’t get a slab rider drill in close to a building, so we use the 210B down in the hole.”

Most excavator manufacturers offer zero-tail-swing machines that are specifically designed to work in tight workspaces. Many of the machines were specifically designed to operate in one traffic lane. Today’s compact machines have the power and maneuverability to be productive in tight quarters such as a roadway work zone.

Trained, skilled and experienced operators are an absolute must for optimum safety. In addition to sizing the machine for the job, make certain that it is equipped with all the proper safety equipment – ROPs, lights, backup warning devices, decals, reflective tape, etc.

Lighting and illumination – Lighting a work zone properly can be tricky. It’s not a simple matter of throwing up some light towers. Glare and dark spots can intensify work zone hazards. The lighting should be installed to provide the proper illumination for work while minimizing glare. The crew needs to be able to see as well as be seen, so the lighting must also take into consideration traffic flow to avoid blinding motorists and work zone traffic.

Proper reflective safety gear and clothing are an absolute must. Crews working on night jobs must be cautioned and reminded about staying clear of dark areas. Entering and leaving dark spots is extremely dangerous.

FHWA Best Practices

FHWA has a Best Practices section on its website ( that is worth visiting. The following are a few examples of what some states are doing to improve work zone safety:

State-Developed Traffic Management Resources

New Jersey Department of Transportation

The New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) Traffic Mitigation Guidelines for Work Zone Safety and Mobility present guidance for consistent and comprehensive consideration of traffic mitigation strategies for roadway reconstruction projects implemented by NJDOT. The document lays out a process for integrating traffic management into project development. The document begins by discussing a process to assess the level of traffic mitigation needed for a project and estimates order-of-magnitude costs for traffic mitigation. It then provides guidelines for selecting traffic mitigation strategies, a description of the components of and responsibilities for various traffic mitigation documents, and suggested evaluation measures and procedures for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of traffic mitigation strategies. The document includes tables that describe categories of traffic mitigation strategies for different project types and characteristics. It also includes a flow chart that illustrates traffic mitigation steps by project development phase.

Ohio Department of Transportation

The Ohio Department of Transportation (Ohio DOT) has developed processes and resources for work zone traffic management, such as permitted lane closure times, a maintenance of traffic (MOT) alternatives analysis process, and sample documents. The resources are available from the Ohio DOT Traffic Management in Work Zones website.

In 2004, the Ohio DOT developed a process to monitor work zone crashes in near real-time. Ohio DOT obtains work zone crash reports from local law enforcement and then inputs this information into a database that sorts crashes into half-mile segments for comparison to historical pre-construction average crash frequency. When ODOT finds abnormally high concentrations of crashes in a certain location after implementation of a work zone, ODOT performs a field visit to the construction area to look for causes and potential fixes.

Oregon Department of Transportation

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is in the midst of a historic period of road and bridge work. Funds from ODOT’s 10-year, $3 billion Oregon Transportation Investment Act (OTIA) will be used to repair or replace hundreds of bridges, pave and maintain city and county roads, improve and expand interchanges, add new capacity to Oregon’s highway system, and remove freight bottlenecks statewide. Keeping traffic and freight moving during this time of unprecedented construction in Oregon is a top priority of the governor, Legislature and the ODOT director. To keep Oregon’s state highways open for travel and business during this intense construction period, ODOT has instituted a statewide traffic mobility program to forecast, manage and track potential mobility conflicts, resolve issues and coordinate efforts. Key components of the program include:

  • Establishing a framework for effective coordination and communication within ODOT as well as other agencies and key stakeholders. The framework includes one statewide traffic mobility manager and Mobility Committees at the statewide, region and corridor levels.
  • Establishing comprehensive mobility-related policies and procedures through development and implementation of a Highway Mobility Operations Manual.
  • Minimizing size and weight restrictions and their impact on the freight industry through enhanced coordination with ODOT’s Motor Carrier Transportation Division with the development of a mobility database.
  • Collaboration with the trucking industry to develop project staging and schedule solutions that meet the needs of the industry and ODOT.
  • Minimizing construction-related vehicle delay through the establishment and enforcement of delay threshold limits in key highway corridors.
  • Developing and implementing Traffic Management Plans for the overall program, for key highway corridors, and for individual projects.

ODOT developed its Highway Mobility Operations Manual, which contains all of the mobility requirements for projects on Oregon highways. The manual spells out how traffic delays and size and weight restrictions will be addressed on a statewide basis, which in turn clarifies the requirements for each key corridor. Designers can then use this information to help them create a tailored traffic-management solution for any route. ODOT is providing training to agency staff and stakeholders on the purpose and content of the manual.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

In 2002, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) began a major reconstruction project on the I-279 Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel in the city of Pittsburgh. With heavy traffic using the bridge and tunnel, closing the structures and detouring motorists would not be easy. PennDOT studied how to best complete the work and began planning detour routes in the early 1980s, well before the project began. PennDOT decided to perform various stages of the project separately in an effort to minimize the impact a total closure would have on the region. The last phase of the project involved work on the main bridge span and the tunnel. Closing of the main span of the bridge and the tunnel required the use of two main detour routes that already carried large volumes of traffic. With this in mind, PennDOT began reconstruction and rehabilitation work on the detour routes almost 10 years before the closures occurred. During the closures, PennDOT implemented many innovative strategies to reduce congestion and delay on the detour routes, including turning off traffic signals to create free-flow routes, expanding lane reversal hours, and opening a hole through an existing concrete barrier to prevent motorists from having to merge into a single lane when exiting a tunnel.

Who Is Responsible for Work Zone Safety?

“Everyone. We all are responsible for driving, walking and biking safely through work zones. The engineers and planners have the responsibility to make sure the work zone is designed and operating properly – with safety in mind. Drivers and pedestrians have the responsibility to always be alert and obey the traffic laws. Passengers should always buckle up and act responsibly. The police and the courts have the responsibility to make sure that the traffic and work zone laws are enforced. Public safety agencies have the responsibility of responding to and securing crash locations and enforcing traffic laws. Local communities and county and state governments need to allocate funding for safe roads and increase public awareness about work zone safety. Everyone should take responsibility for work zone safety,” states FHWA.

The National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse (The Clearinghouse) is owned by the ARTBA-Transportation Development Foundation. Many of its functions are operated through contract with the Texas Transportation Institute.

The Clearinghouse is the world’s largest online resource for road construction work zone safety information and contains searchable databases, including safety experts nationwide, traffic crash and worker accident data, traffic laws and regulations, agency standards and best practices, training resources and publications, safety equipment and technology, and current and past research.

The Clearinghouse was originally established through a cooperative agreement with the Federal Highway Administration and ARTBA. Today, the Clearinghouse continues to serve a vital role, helping both the public and private sectors improve work zone safety. Since its inception, Clearinghouse services have been utilized by more than 500,000 users from all 50 states and dozens of foreign countries.

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