This year marked the celebration of the 10th National Work Zone Awareness Week, an annual set of events that highlight hazards for both workers and motorists in road-construction zones.
The organizers’ message centers on motorists traveling in work zones, with this year’s theme being “Work Zone Safety is in Your Hands.” While distracted driving is a major cause of accidents, contractors also must make sure their own house is in order on this issue. This involves not just the warning and transition areas for traffic leading to a work zone, but also safety measures for the work flow on the jobsite.
Traffic control programs
This means you need to spend time properly developing both temporary traffic control plans for the traveling public and internal traffic control plans (ITCP), according to Bruce Drewes, an instructional consultant with 3T Group, based in Garden City, Idaho.
Drewes provided an overview of strategies for safer work zones during the 2017 National Asphalt Pavement Association meeting.
According to Drewes, about half of work zone fatalities occur not because of distracted drivers but because of situations within a contractor’s own jobsite – crew members “running over people, or capturing them in the wrong position at the wrong time or maybe crushing them,” he says.
ITCPs designate safe areas for workers and appropriate routes for work vehicles and equipment; they set up “no go” zones for workers, vehicles and equipment; and they define operating procedures for trucks hauling materials to the area.
“You need to think about what’s going to take place in that workspace,” Drewes explains. “Consider how you are going to get your vehicles, equipment and materials into that work area through your access and egress points and what those points are going to look like. Think about how that equipment is going to work in that space and how you’re going to separate the people on foot away from your equipment.”
Both temporary traffic plans and ITCPs need to be designed before anyone occupies a work location, Drewes says, and the plans need to require everyone be trained for the job decision he or she is supposed to make – from the flagger, to the technician, to the supervisor, to the plans’ designer.
“The plan details how you communicate; it’s used to communicate with the people setting up traffic control, the people working within the traffic control and those driving into the area hauling material,” he adds.
Contractors also need to make sure they’re giving the traveling public correct information and that traffic control devices are legible and updated. For example, if a sign is posted that indicates a flagman is ahead, make sure a flagger is in place. Inconsistencies can lead to public mistrust.
In developing an ITCP, contractors need to consider what each individual is supposed to do and the common behaviors of people on foot, such as cellphone usage or the condition of retro-reflective clothing. This extends to communication among workers, particularly with operators and crew on the ground.
“They need to keep their head in the game,” Drewes says. “We get very focused on our job and forget where we’re working. In those high-risk locations, we need to make sure we have our best staff.”
For instance, a flagger is a position that often gets scant consideration by contractors, Drewes says.
“Who do you have flagging? A lot of companies will use their newest employee because they can’t do anything else,” he says. “But think of the risk of having that flagger that has no experience with traffic control.”
Drewes adds that contractors must develop their temporary traffic control programs to comply with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).
Taking the liability approach
“With external traffic control, it’s important to have certain standard operating procedures in place, because when there is an injury to the traveling public in or near your work zone, there is going to be a liability suit,” says Greg Stefan, vice president of risk control for Arch Insurance Group, based in Atlanta, Georgia. Stefan also spoke during the NAPA annual meeting and focused on the legal ramifications of not following proper traffic control plans.
“What you and your teams have done before a bad event occurrs is going to be way more important than what you’re able to do after an incident,” Stefan says. “You’ve got to look at your best management practices and standard operating procedures and what your teams are doing in the course of the day and the course of the week, because you never know when one of these incidents is going to happen.”
Stefan has recognized a pattern to litigators’ approach to work zone incidents.
First, contractors are questioned about any violations of MUTCD or a state equivalent. “That is a nail in your coffin, because it is a minimum standard,” he says. “There will be an element of this in every lawsuit.”
Attorneys will also make general allegations that a contractor did not “effectively” warn the public. “‘Effectively’ is an important word because that can be construed and sliced in a lot of different ways,” Stefan adds.
Contractors will be asked about the proper placement of vehicles and equipment and sight line issues. They will be hit with questions regarding inspection of traffic control devices; failing to properly inspect is a common allegation. Stefan says attorneys will challenge contractors to prove they complied with their project’s plans.
To combat this, he says, contractors must have a process for ongoing inspections. “Trust but verify. Trust your teams, trust your crews, train them, get them out there, trust them,” Stefan states. “But you’ve got to have verification.”
Another legal tactic that works against contractors in work zone incidents is delaying a suit as long as possible, which makes it harder for contractors to prove they were in compliance. Contractors can meet this challenge by documenting everything related to warning devices that were in place the day of an incident. They need to list employees involved in placing or modifying these devices. They also must show device placement conformed to project specifications and provide any other details related to contracts, agreements, scope of work and who is responsible for them.
“Focusing on these issues is a good exercise everyone should go through, because these incidents don’t happen every day, and when they do happen, it’s important to be prepared to realize how you’re going to defend yourself,” Stefan says.
“The whole process of documentation is not about getting a form done. It’s about verifying that you are executing the management of the work zone as it was intended. You’ve got to have a means of verifying. You’ve got to make folks accountable for it. Video and photos are good, but you also need to have a good process for storage and retrieval.”
Perhaps the best way to ensure work zone safety is to make it a company’s core value.
“We have to have a culture of personal responsibility in which safety comes ahead of production and your management tools reflect that culture,” says Peter Wilson, president and CEO of Barriere Construction in Metairie, Louisiana. “You must talk the talk and walk the walk in your actions.”
Also speaking at the NAPA annual meeting, Wilson said his company recently completed a large project in Slidell, Louisiana, where three interstates meet. During construction, at least eight work zone intrusions occurred in which vehicles came behind the cones, barrels and barriers.
“We must be proactive leaders with safety in our workplace, and it is management’s responsibility to train our employees to carry that safety culture with them in their activities at work and at home,” he says.
“The real issue is, how can we make our employees embrace advances in safety, use them, and how can we ensure all our employees, both managers and hourly workers, are as committed to safety as we are as owners? It’s important that our safety director reports to the CEO, in my opinion, and the message of safety is the responsibility of everyone in the organization, not just the safety director.”