The irony just adds to the pathos: it was the traffic control supervisor who was killed in a backover by an asphalt dump truck inside the roadway paving work zone on May 11, 2005, in Tennessee.

The traffic control supervisor…how is that possible?

Well, actually, a review of the facts reveals just another, all-too-common yet readily preventable, backover incident.

The supervisor was a full-time district fire chief working part-time running a traffic control crew for an employer who was subcontracted by the subcontractor that was paving the roadway. The supervisor’s employer had been in business for three years, and he had worked for it for two years. To serve as supervisor, he had completed the two-day American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) traffic control supervisor training course. Prior to becoming the supervisor, he had worked for a full year as a traffic control operator. He had worked for the fire department for 30 years. On the day in question, he was wearing a high visibility reflective vest.

The asphalt truck driver had worked for the paving subcontractor for 22 years. His truck had been purchased new just a year earlier and was equipped with side view mirrors, two front fender mirrors, red lights on both ends of the rear fender that flash when the truck is in reverse, three tailgate lights that flash when in reverse and an audible reverse alarm that was installed right after purchase when the truck chassis was sent for installation of the dump bed. The driver had performed the required daily safety check on the vehicle. The post-incident investigation showed that all the equipment was operating properly.

Traffic around the work zone was managed by the traffic control operator with a STOP/GO paddle, and orange cones were used to channel public drivers. When the incident occurred, it was about 10:00 am on a clear, sunny day, about 55 degrees.

After completing paving on the two, one-block-long northbound lanes, the crew prepared to pave the southbound lanes. Among other things, this involved repositioning the orange cones. As that work was completed, the driver of the dump truck, waiting in the staging area at the south end of the southbound lanes, received a radio call saying he should back his truck to the paving machine at the far end of the southbound lanes.

Meanwhile, the traffic control operator observed the traffic control supervisor moving along the work zone collecting a few of the orange cones that remained out of position. When he moved to help, the supervisor waved him back to his station and paddle, indicating that he could take care of the cones himself. As the operator walked back, he observed the dump truck backing through the work zone toward the paver. When he reached his station and looked back, the operator could see the backing truck and, further back, the supervisor walking toward the far end of the work zone – his back to the truck – with cones in hand.

The truck had backed approximately 172 feet when the driver felt a “bump.” Looking in his mirror, the driver saw some cones tumbling in the roadway. He stopped quickly, pulled forward and got out to see what he might have hit. At the same time, the operator, attracted by the truck’s sudden stop, ran up to see what had happened. At the back of the truck, they found the supervisor lying face down, moaning and clutching some cones. Someone called 911. EMTs arrived within minutes. The police report recorded that tire prints on the supervisor’s pants indicated that he had been backed over from the bottom of his legs to his waist area. He had multiple injuries. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital where, a few hours later, he died.

The investigation showed that all the truck’s safety equipment operated properly, but it also showed that the company that installed the truck bed had positioned the backing alarm so that it faced the front of the vehicle rather than the back, as the alarm manufacturer’s installation instructions clearly indicated. Thus, the alarm’s sound level behind the truck was substantially lower than intended.

Apparently, the mismounted backing alarm was the immediate cause of the tragedy. But that’s not remarkable. Every incident has an immediate cause. Every year, about 40 construction workers – mostly laborers – are killed, for one reason or another, by backing vehicles in roadway work zones.

Isn’t there anything that can be done about this?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigated this incident and, last December, posted a detailed report. The agency made seven recommendations, but since the agency has no enforcement authority, all are just “shoulds” that highway work zone contractors ought to employ. Two stand out.

• “Recommendation #1: Employers should ensure that when backing procedures are in place for the use of mobile construction vehicles, a spotter is designated to direct backing, and drivers are in communication with workers on foot.”

• “Recommendation #7: The U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the State OSHA Plans should consider a rulemaking effort to improve the safety regulations and require new safeguards for employees on construction worksites.”

Will employers embrace the first recommendation and will OSHA embrace the second? Most likely, the first will not happen without the second because contractors that choose not to add an extra crewmember to spot would have a competitive advantage in the contract bid process. Either federal OSHA or state OSHAs have to impose the requirement on all contractors in its jurisdiction, all at once.

One state has taken such action. In May, 2004, after six dump truck backover fatalities in five years, Washington State adopted an emergency rule (later made permanent) that requires backing trucks inside work zones to have spotters (see Washington Mandates Back-Up Protections. That kind of rule makes a difference.

The only question is whether adoption of that rule nationwide is going to require action by each individual state or whether OSHA will step up to advance a single, nationwide requirement. So far, there is no indication of any action on this at OSHA.

While the states and the federal government consider what action to take, the LHSFNA provides a number of resources that may be of use to Laborers and union contractors who want to attack the problem. The award-winning Roadway Safety Program has a module – in English and Spanish – that addresses backovers as well as 13 other, common work zone hazards. The Fund also has health alerts on Backing Safely, Spotter Safety and Driving Safely. The Internal Traffic Control Program booklet explains how to set up and maintain a traffic control plan inside work zones that minimize risks for workers on foot. Also available is the Highway Workzone Safety Manual and the four-fold pamphlet, Positive Protection. For more information on work zone safety, contact the LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division.

[Steve Clark]