What can Laborers and union contractors do to better separate work zones and outside traffic flow?


“The best thing,” says LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Director Scott Schneider, “is to close the road to traffic while it is repaired.”

That, however, is not a preferred option for most state DOT administrators, particularly on major traffic arteries. With more traffic than ever, administrators are reluctant to close roads. Instead, they generally rely on temporary lane closures or, increasingly, night work.

Nevertheless, closures make more sense than often is commonly understood. When a road is completely closed to traffic, construction vehicles have less impeded access, the work can move more quickly, there are fewer injuries and fatalities and costs are lower for contractors and state budgets. Plus, polling indicates that the driving public often prefers an outright closing. Some DOT administrators are taking notice. Laborers and contractor allies should pursue this possibility with state officials.

Night Work

The resort to night work provides some of the advantages of an outright closure – reduced traffic volume and better access to the work site – as well as cooler temperatures and, possibly, longer work shifts. It also has less short-term impact on business and travel than an outright closure.

While night work reduces exposure to traffic flow, other health and safety risks for workers are increased. To date no studies have investigated the relative safety of night and day road work.

Positive Separation

Daytime lane closures remain the primary means of conducting road repair activity.

Positive separation – concrete (Jersey) barriers, water-filled barriers and truck-mounted attenuators – is recommended to achieve maximum protection for workers. No states, however, currently require positive separation.

Requiring positive separation is problematic on small, fast-moving projects because of its cost. Not only are the barriers, themselves, expensive but the work of transporting, placing and replacing them is time-consuming and costly as well (though newly-designed machinery can ease the process).

However, on larger, immobile and longer-duration projects, the use of positive separation is more feasible – the costs may be spread over a larger general budget, and the work can be done faster and safer. Yet, unless the state requires positive separation, companies that choose to ignore it will win contracts with lower bids. Thus, Laborers and union contractors would be wise to work with state officials to mandate the use of positive separation in the bid specifications of larger projects.

Traffic Control Coordinator

In New Jersey on state DOT jobs for the past several years, the contractor is required to have a Traffic Control Coordinator (TCC) onsite. This person, often a Laborer trained at the Local 172 or 472 Safety and Training Center, is responsible for the traffic control plan (TCP).

In 2001 and 2002, New Jersey incurred no worker or motorist fatalities in state DOT work zones. In 2003, no workers but two motorists were killed. Before the requirement for a TCC, fatalities in state DOT work zones averaged eight to ten (three or four workers) per year. Though preliminary, these data indicate that a TCC coordinator can make a difference in work zone fatalities.

J-4 Flagger Station

About a quarter of all work zone worker fatalities are flaggers, about 30 per year.

Flaggers stop and move traffic around the construction activity. They are vulnerable because of their location at the boundary of the work zone. Commonly, they face drivers who fail to slow or stop as directed or who, in merging into fewer lanes, cause collisions that rebound at the flagger.

One new way to separate the flagger from immediate danger is the remote flagger station. Last year, the first such system, the J-4 Flagger Station, was approved for use nationwide by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Similar devices currently seek FHWA approval.

Invented and patented by LIUNA Local Union 477 member Rick Heinz, the J-4 is manufactured in Illinois by Endless Visions, Inc. and sells for $2999. Its first buyer was the Illinois Department of Transportation, which purchased 20 units last fall.

Road tested, mobile and durable, the J-4 allows the flagger to control stop/slow signage for drivers with a push of a button from a distance of 25 feet. Much taller and larger than the standard paddle sign, the J-4 also is more visible. In field tests in Illinois, it performed well in all weather and on all terrains. More information on the J-4 is available from Endless Visions at 217-322-3757.

Setting Traffic Control Devices

The situation of workers who place traffic control devices – warning signs, cones, speed monitors, rumble strips and so on – is a particular concern because about a quarter of all worker fatalities occur among this group. Because they are not in the actual work area – rather, their whole purpose is to set up or take down the markers that a work zone is approaching – these workers are extremely vulnerable to unwarned, high speed traffic.

Two available technological options could improve prospects for these workers. One is a low-riding platform that mounts on the back of a truck, enabling workers to more easily place or retrieve cones while the truck moves along the road or shoulder. This will reduce the danger of falls.

The other is a truck-mounted attenuator (TMA) attached to a truck that follows the vehicle from which cones or other equipment are dispensed. The following truck presents a barrier to approaching traffic, and, if a collision occurs, the TMA can disperse or absorb much of the dangerous energy.

[Steve Clark]