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Road Work Safety: What Workers Need to Know

September 22, 2015
 / Safety / 

As summer winds down, so does much of the road construction that ramps up each year as temperatures rise. With the road construction season nearly behind us, it's a good opportunity to investigate the dangers that still plague construction workers building and repairing America's roads and highways.

While data for 2015 isn't available yet, the outlook for construction fatalities doesn't look good. A preliminary report by the National Safety Council found that deaths on America's roadways are up 14 percent over this time last year. While this can partially be attributed to an increase in average miles driven, this means more injuries and fatalities for roadside workers as well. More than 20,000 workers are injured on the job at road construction sites annually, according to the Department of Transportation. In 2013, 105 workers died in roadside construction zones.

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As drivers put more miles on America's roadways, the risk to workers building and repairing them increases.

"The most dangerous situations are not always the most obvious."

A CDC analysis of work zone injuries and fatalities from 2003 to 2007 found that 69 percent of these deaths involved a pedestrian worker being struck by a vehicle. Surprisingly, the vehicle in question was typically a piece of construction equipment, and not a civilian or commercial automobile. While injuries and fatalities in work zones have historically been trending downward, as a proportion of all fatalities in the construction industry, road construction has seen an increase in deaths in recent years. As is often the case, the most dangerous situations are not always the most obvious. Construction safety systems should always be in place to organize and keep track of compliance on the job. But it helps to know what activities can prove the most dangerous when doing roadside construction.

Recurring patterns
In 2001 The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health performed a study of highway work zone fatalities. Data from work zone accidents between 1991 and 2000 was analyzed and sorted by cause. Researchers found that the most common cause of death in a work zone, accounting for over 90 percent of all fatal injuries, involved a worker on foot being struck by a vehicle. Much has been made of the danger posed to roadside workers in the past, and this has led to the creation and enforcement of harsh penalties for drivers who speed in work zones. But perhaps more surprisingly, more often than not, a civilian car or truck was not the source of impact. In fact, from 1997-2000, deaths caused by construction vehicles were far more common, and actually rose, while traffic deaths remained stagnant.

Recent statistics reflect a slight decrease in overall worker deaths in road construction zones. However, the threat of the construction equipment itself still outweighs that posed by passing motorists, with 38 percent of road work fatalities caused by other workers, according to the Department of Transportation.

Backing hazards
One of the leading causes of work zone fatalities continues to be backing up without proper supervision. Construction vehicles, like trucks, are difficult to safely maneuver in a confined space like a roadside work zone because of their size. Without taking the proper precautions, workers hidden from the driver's line of sight can easily be struck while the vehicle is moving in reverse. Dump trucks backing up without the correct use of a spotter are frequently implicated in work zone fatalities. To avoid these injuries, workers must follow basic rules for work zone activity and communication, some of which may already be standard construction safety products on their job site. This includes:

  • Wearing high-visibility clothing at all times when at work on a road construction site
  • Proper communication between drivers and spotters, as well as anyone else working on foot. Review hand signals and basic spotting procedures before heading to the work site and adhere to these protocols strictly
  • Drivers should always be aware of their surroundings and make eye contact before moving in any direction in a work zone

"Most road construction deaths happen during the day."

Night work
A great deal of road work is often completed at night, when traffic and the summer heat are generally less of an issue. Since nighttime naturally creates lower visibility conditions to work in, common sense would assume more injuries and fatalities associated with night work. Statistically, it is quite the opposite. The DOT found that as much as 70 percent of road construction deaths from 2003-2007 happened during the day. The risks were greater during the day even for commercial traffic traveling through work zones. While night work requires different precautions compared to working during the day, these data demonstrate the importance of staying focused on safety at all hours while in a work zone.

Passing through and collisions
The second-most-common cause of death for road construction workers is from vehicle collisions, implicated in 19 percent of work zone deaths in 2010. Interestingly, fatalities from vehicle collisions are typically caused not by a worker in the work area itself, but simply passing through it. These "passing through" incidents accounted for 13 percent of the fatal accidents on road construction sites between 2003 and 2010, according to analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Like backing accidents, passing through incidents tend to share common characteristics. A majority of the time, a truck with a tractor trailer collides with another piece of equipment that is stopped in the work zone. And while collisions between vehicles and equipment accounted for 35 percent of all highway accidents from 2003 to 2010, 89 percent of them occurred in a road construction zone.

As the BLS report states, "the large number of collisions involving vehicles or mobile equipment in which one vehicle is stopped indicates that particular attention should be given to [this issue]." Workers must be aware of the boundaries of every roadside work zone and how to navigate them safely. When in doubt, consult a supervisor with any questions and avoid costly accidents.

"The Fatal Four accounted for 57 percent of all construction industry deaths in 2012."

Fatal Four still apply
While vehicles present the greatest danger to workers performing road construction, a significant number of deaths are also attributable to the "Fatal Four" of the construction industry. These incidents - falls, being caught between objects, electrocutions and being struck by an object - accounted for 57 percent of all fatalities across the entire construction industry in 2012, based on analysis from the BLS and OSHA. While road work may not always involve these common hazards, and workers' attention may be drawn to passing vehicles and other large equipment, mistakes can and do happen, and it pays to remain vigilant of these.

As noted by the BLS report on road construction deaths, fatal falls can occur when workers are constructing bridges or overpasses and are not properly secured. As many as five fall deaths were attributed to a worker riding in the bucket of a cherry picker of the course of the report, for example. In 51 cases between 2003 and 2010, workers were killed after being struck by falling objects, such as metal and pipes. Electrocution accounted for 39 deaths during this time period, almost always from overhead power lines. In short, every construction site contains safety risks that are unique, but several of the most common remain and must be accounted for.


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