Since 2013, we’ve seen incidents, injuries and deaths in work zones trending in the wrong direction for both workers and motorists. In 2019, there were more than 120,000 crashes, 43,000 injuries and at least 780 deaths to workers, drivers and pedestrians in work zones.
“Today, highway work zones are among the most dangerous jobsites in construction, both for LIUNA members and the general public,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “We have to take every step to control these environments so LIUNA members and other workers can safely undertake the important work of building and maintaining our nation’s infrastructure.”
In addition to the physical and mental health impacts on workers and motorists, the sheer volume of these incidents has major implications for employers and our economy in general. After factoring in health care costs, lost work time and property damage, it’s estimated the total cost of work zone injuries exceeds $9.5 billion each year.
Factors Contributing to Incidents in Work Zones
Workers performing tasks in highway work zones face many of the same potential hazards as construction workers in other settings, including runovers and backovers, heat stress and exposure to toxic substances like silica dust. What makes work zones particularly dangerous is that workers have to perform their jobs next to the traveling public, sometimes with only a few feet separating them from cars traveling at high speeds, typically 65 miles per hour or more.
There are several factors that contribute to this added risk for workers:
- Speed. As driving speed increases, motorists have less time to react and vehicles take longer to stop. In the spring of 2020, when road traffic was down 40 percent due to the pandemic, work zone crashes and injuries rose as average highway speed increased. At 23 miles per hour, 90 percent of pedestrians survive impact with a vehicle. At 58 mph – a lower speed than many people travel on highways – only 10 percent of people survive.
- Distracted driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates nine percent of fatal crashes involve distracted drivers. Texting while driving or other forms of distraction give drivers much less time to react to traffic conditions, a lane change or a lane closure for an upcoming work zone.
- Impaired driving. Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs or being fatigued behind the wheel are also common causes for work zone intrusions. In 2014, alcohol was a factor in 25 percent of fatal work zone crashes.
Besides appropriate signage and lane markings warning drivers that they’re approaching a work zone, there’s only so much contractors can do to control driver behavior leading up to and alongside highway work zones. Because of this limitation, the most effective way to protect workers and motorists is to separate them whenever possible.
Bringing Positive Protection to Highway Work Zones
The best way to protect workers from motorists is to divert traffic around the work zone entirely by sending drivers on an alternate route. This ensures a speeding vehicle never gets near a worker on foot, and it also ensures motorists don’t crash into concrete barriers or equipment that can cause a serious injury or fatality.
Unfortunately, this setup often is infeasible in the real world due to traffic demands or road design. The next best option is to use positive protection – devices that contain or redirect vehicles and meet certain crashworthiness criteria. The most common type of positive protection is the portable concrete barrier. Concrete barriers are regularly used on longer-term projects along high-speed highways and interstates. Other types of positive protection include steel barriers, movable concrete barriers (zipper type) and mobile steel barriers attached to a trailer. Shadow vehicles with energy-absorbing attenuators, vehicle-arresting systems and alternative flagging devices provide additional protection.
In contrast, cones and barrels are not positive protection. They are easy to deploy and easy for motorists to see, but aren’t effective at stopping or redirecting vehicles that intrude into the work zone. Shifting away from cones and barrels to the widespread use of positive protection may be the single most important step we can take to protect the lives of LIUNA members in highway work zones.
The benefits of positive protection over cones and barrels are well-known. So why haven’t these devices replaced cones and barrels in every highway work zone? Some of the reasons are logistical, some are about funding and how state DOTs operate and others are related to educating contractors and traffic control engineers about options that already exist. We’ll take a closer look at how many of these obstacles can be overcome in today’s construction environment in our next issue of Lifelines.
For more resources on work zone safety, LIUNA signatory contractors can order the Fund’s Preventing Intrusions into Highway Work Zones pamphlet, Spotter Safety and Flagger Safety toolbox talks as well as our Choose Barriers Not Barrels poster.