Getting in the Zone – How to Keep Road Work Zones Safe & Accident Free

In many countries, the sunny spring and summer months are known not only for being the time for barbecues, going to the beach, and taking vacations, but also for roadway work and construction projects. When the weather gets nice and daytime visibility becomes longer, many contractors and city initiatives kick things into high gear to repair potholes, change lane or road structure, and any number of other projects. Unfortunately, these areas, known as work zones, are also highly hazardous for workers, as well as the drivers in and around them. Being on the street puts workers at the immediate mercy of drivers who may or may not be paying as much attention to the road as they should be. Additionally, drivers may be confused by signage, barriers, and alternate routes as construction workers have to redirect traffic around the maintenance.

Street and Traffic Signs

According to a just-published Equipment World magazine article, as many as 45% of contractor work zones in 2013 experienced vehicle accidents. This statistic includes construction vehicles themselves, but the vast majority of accidents seem to come from civilian traffic. Furthermore, accidents injured and killed drivers, passengers, and workers alike and incidents ranged from minor accidents with little to no damage or injury, to multi-fatality occurrences. The staggering reality that nearly half of work zones experienced some kind of incident should be enough to put work zone safety on everyone’s radar.

In the article’s cited study, contractors themselves gave several suggestions for improving work zone safety:

The study results show that 67 percent of contractors believe tougher laws, fines and legal penalties for work zone violations would reduce injuries and fatalities; 74 percent noted that an increase in the use of concrete barriers would reduce injuries and fatalities; and 66 percent said more frequent safety training for workers would reduce injuries and fatalities.

-Equipment World Magazine

And, in response, here are a few categories of our own we’ve picked out to help you improve your own work zone safety

Employee Visibility

One of the first responsibilities employers have to their workers in any case is to do everything in their power to keep them safe. When it comes to work zones, a great starting point is the visibility of your workers. Whenever workers are out on projects, they’re no doubt wearing bright orange and yellow reflective vests – and this should be true regardless of the time of day or level of traffic – but what else could help keep them from being struck by a vehicle? For one, the positioning of your projects, including safety barriers and warning signs should be planned out with road conditions and layout in mind. If a road is curved near where work will be occurring, you must give notice well in advance to oncoming vehicles of the work being done. Signage posted progressively closer and closer together can help accomplish this, along with live flaggers with signs that stand in front of the turn or corner to let cars know of their coworkers’ presence.

Visibility should also be considered for the duration of your project. For example, if a large project will be conducted in multiple phases, planning out which segments of the road will be most dangerous to work on based upon predicted weather and annual traffic reports can help you make the safest choice about where to work at what time. Also, consider things like glare in windshields of drivers on sunny days, shadows from overpasses and tunnels that might obscure workers to a driver, and if certain driving lanes will have a different view of things when entering a work zone.

Physical Setup

One of the most common causes of work zone accidents is drivers not understanding the instructional cones and alternate routes workers lay out. When deciding on temporary routes for drivers while work is being done, workers should always drive a vehicle through to ensure that cone and sign placement makes it easy for drivers to navigate (if they can barely fit between two cones, they may wonder if they’re actually supposed to be driving in that area, for example). By the same token, try and close off places you don’t want drivers to go by making cones close enough together that they can’t pass through them; both cocky drivers wishing to avoid an inconvenient detour and completely oblivious motorists can end up in bad situations if it appears they can take a shortcut or alternate route. All traffic should be diverted well out of the way of work, so that if a driver does misjudge a turn or get distracted they won’t immediately find themselves in a hole or running into a bulldozer.

In some situations, you may determine that it actually makes more sense to detour traffic altogether than change lanes within the work zone. This can happen when narrow roads prevent adequate clearance for multiple lanes or for cars to stay far enough clear of your work crew. These situations may be frustrating for motorists, as it might add to their commutes to have to drive around an entire work zone, but it’s highly preferable to risking worker and civilian injuries.

Lean On Local Authorities

In particularly high traffic or difficult to work in zones, nothing slows down and sharpens the attention of drivers like a police cruiser in their field of view. Signs that remind drivers of increased penalties in work zones (“Fines Double”, etc.) can also help to imply a sort of ‘shadow presence’ of the law. Local police will always err on the side of workers and safety, so don’t be afraid to lean on them if a potentially dangerous situation arises.

Safety at the employee level should also be a top consideration. If it has been many months since workers were out on a project, or if the current work differs meaningfully from work done in the past, it is a good idea to revisit training and instill any special considerations for the upcoming work. Finally, always be ready to adapt and know that conditions are likely to change with weather and traffic density. Workers should be instructed to re-walk or drive vehicle detour paths several times per day in case cones or signs get knocked over or moved.

Finally, in addition to the above considerations, be sure to consult with local agencies and work organizations with jurisdiction to get specific advice and regulations for your city, state, or region.

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