Traditionally, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) kicks off the summer construction and repair season in April with a week to alert drivers to the dangers of highway work zones. This year, it is the FHWA and state transportation officials who are on notice.

Last December’s critique in the New York TimesEfforts Lag to Improve Safety at Work Zones – hangs over this construction season like the steroid issue in baseball: regulatory failures were alleged; now, a closer examination is likely.

The Times aggregated data from the past five years to point out that more than two Americans a day are killed in work zone tragedies. More than 100 each day are injured. Most of these are the drivers and passengers who crash into or around work zones. About 13.5 percent of the fatalities – 630 since 2004 – are highway construction workers, about 40 percent laborers. Clearly, LIUNA members have a stake in this issue.

Working Both Sides of the Barrels

It is hard to imagine a worksite more difficult to manage than a highway work zone. While cars and trucks race by at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour, inside the zone, dump trucks, graders, pavers and other equipment operate in tight quarters with scores of workers on foot. Meanwhile, as each section of roadway is completed, the site advances along the highway, revamping its internal dynamics and requiring new warning system configurations for motorists.

Supervising these ever-moving worksites requires experience, skill and focus. While urging stronger federal and state oversight of work zones, the LHSFNA – along with its sister fund, the LIUNA Training & Education Fund – is also active in efforts to improve work zone safety through worker and supervisor instruction and guidance. For instance, earlier this year, LHSFNA staff participated in a national, online training seminar for OSHA personnel. Relying on the Roadway Safety Program (which may be downloaded for free), the staff and its partners explained the fundamental guidelines and procedures for setting up, moving and managing work zones. The staff also provided a training session in Cincinnati for state DOT officials. While LIUNA Training and the scores of local LIUNA training centers across the United States and Canada focus on training Laborers, the LHSFNA is a resource to contractors who want to strengthen their onsite leadership and to state officials who need to improve their oversight. To get help, contact the Fund at 202-628-5465.

The Road Construction Industry Consortium, which developed the Roadway Safety Program, is currently working on a second program – this one targeted specifically to roadway construction supervisors. The guidance documents will be complete by the summer, and the CD will be ready by the end of the year.

Despite the FHWA’s annual appeals to motorists to drive more carefully through work zones, the proportion of total highway fatalities associated with work zones more than doubled between 1982 and 2002 and, despite some recent decline, remains historically high today. The FHWA’s appeals are augmented by state and local public service campaigns, increased fines for speeding in work zones and strengthened police enforcement, but, taken as a whole, these efforts are not succeeding.

The LHSFNA and other worker safety organizations have focused their primary attention on measures that contractors and workers can take to limit fatalities caused, not by crashing motorists, but by construction equipment and other hazards within work zones. While such efforts must continue, the Times piece suggests that state and federal officials could do more to mitigate overall fatalities through strengthened oversight.

Certainly, many work zone management issues are best handled by local contractors under state supervision, but it is a fact that many situations and settings (most obviously, interstate highways) are consistent across state lines. Yet, state transportation officials have generally opposed increased federal oversight, and FHWA has usually deferred by issuing rules that grant maximum state flexibility.

For instance, the FHWA requires states to conduct periodic reviews of their work zone procedures, but such reviews are inadequate, according to a 2004 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report that recommended stronger federal “participation in the states’ work zone safety inspections” and more diligent monitoring of inspection results. Nevertheless, since the NTSB report was issued, FHWA has increased from one to two years the time between required state reviews and ended the requirement of states to share their findings.

Another issue with state inspections is the increasing use of private consultants – rather than state inspectors – to ensure compliance. Mirroring practice that has become commonplace in many sectors of the economy, an increasing proportion of these consultants are former employees of the industry they now inspect. Questions have been raised about their independence and judgment, yet given the current squeeze on state budgets, a return to state inspectors is unlikely.

A final concern raised by the Times investigation is the lack of reliable data on work zone fatalities. While federal data indicate a decline in such deaths in recent years, the newspaper found more than 50 news accounts in the last two years of work zone-related deaths that were not reported in federal data.

“Training and regulation are two major prongs of work zone safety management,” says LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni, “but without proper oversight and enforcement, their impact is limited. The Federal Highway Administration needs to step up efforts to ensure proper state oversight of work zones. It’s in the best interest of our members as well as the driving public.”

[Steve Clark]