In an effort to keep traffic flowing smoothly during the day, many employers have been pushed to perform more and more highway work at night. However, prioritizing a quicker commute home for the public has consequences for those in the construction industry.
“Addressing our nation’s crumbling infrastructure makes frequent maintenance work on highways and bridges a necessity,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “This work is often done at night to lessen the inconvenience to the public, but it also places Laborers at increased risk.”
The Washington State Department of Transportation calls night work “inherently more dangerous” due to reduced visibility and the much higher percentage of impaired drivers. Research from the Texas Transportation Institute suggests that work zone intrusions at night tend to cause more serious injuries than those during the day. In addition to these safety concerns, it is also more difficult to ensure the quality of the work done at night due to low light conditions.
Most discussions about night work center on the pros and cons for the public. But what about the pros and cons for the construction laborers performing the work?
What are the advantages for workers?
- Temperatures are cooler at night during the hot summer months.
- Fewer cars on the road means less traffic through work zones.
- A well-lit work area is easier for drivers to see.
- Workers might be able to schedule family time before and after work.
What are the disadvantages for workers?
- Decreased traffic means cars are generally traveling faster at night.
- It’s much more common for drivers to be impaired (i.e., drowsy or drunk driving).
- A brightly lit work zone may cause glare for oncoming traffic, making it harder to see workers. Glare from the sun is also a problem during sunrise and sunset.
- Disrupting sleep schedules affects the body, particularly when going back and forth from days to nights. Fatigue decreases reaction time and decision-making abilities, both on site and when workers are driving home.
- Night work increases workers’ risk for a number of negative health effects.
- Uneven lighting on site can cause tripping hazards or lead to backovers and struck-bys.
- Reflective clothing only shows up when lit directly by an oncoming car.
- Emergencies during night work may be harder to respond to.
Because of all the disadvantages mentioned above, many companies (and many workers) don’t like doing highway work at night. In 2013, about 4,000 highway construction workers were injured on the job. Reports show that about 880 of those injuries occurred between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 a.m.
Sometimes night work can’t be avoided due to scheduling or other requirements. In these cases, we should work to improve safety through the use of better lighting, the use of protective barriers and the use of active illumination on clothing and hardhats in addition to reflective clothing. Finding better ways to improve traffic flow through work zones during the day (e.g., through public information campaigns, better signage, etc.) would also decrease the pressure on contractors to perform work at night.
The LHSFNA’s Roadway Safety Program, Internal Traffic Control Plans and Highway Work Zone Safety Checklist publications provide additional guidance about how to improve safety on your highway work site. They can be ordered through the online Publications Catalogue.
[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]