The summer road construction and repair season kicks off this month with high expectations.  Federal funding in solid, and a lot of work needs to be done.

Work Zone Worker Fatalities

At the same time, more passenger and commercial vehicles than ever are using America’s roads.  Pressure is on to complete work as quickly as possible and with the least amount of disruption for the driving public.

These conditions increase the risks for Laborers. As they head out for another season of roadwork, Laborers should remind themselves of the dangers involved.  In several LIUNA regions, this month’s eighth annual Work Zone Safety Awareness Week (April 2-6), sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration, provides a convenient occasion both for refresher training and efforts to influence the driving public.

New Jersey

In New Jersey, a broad partnership is presenting a one-day Work Zone Safety Awareness Conference on April 4 at Rider University.  The morning session will feature prominent state transportation officials and the afternoon workshops will look at a variety of topics, including best practices, signs & message boards, positive barrier separation, state police enforcement, media campaigns and congestion management.  To get more information or to register, interested parties should contact Dr. Claudia Knezek at 732-445-3632, ext. 109.

New England

In New England, the New England Laborers’ Training Trust Fund will provide special, one-day Roadway Work Zone Safety classes for Laborers employed by three large signatory contractors.  A total of 75 workers are expected to participate.  The classes will review key modules of the Roadway Safety Program and then focus on five segments of the OSHA 10-Hour program for roadway construction.  A hands-on workshop will concentrate on the set-up of work zones, signs and arrow boards.


In Illinois, Laborers will attempt to reach the driving public through three interventions.  On April 2 (Monday), they will distribute work zone safe driving information at various work places throughout the state.  On Wednesday, they will participate in a local TV media event in Bloomington designed to highlight the state’s photo radar enforcement program.  Illinois was the first state to authorize photo enforcement, and the threat of large, inescapable fines is expected to slow drivers in work zones.  On Friday, Laborers will participate in their fourth annual rest area intervention program.  Wearing t-shirts that feature the “Stay Alive, Keep Us Alive, Drive 45” slogan, they will distribute work zone safe driving information at rest areas around the state.


In Missouri, following the death of one Laborer in a roadway work zone, Laborers will conduct a night vigil on Monday to raise public awareness of work zone dangers.  Later this spring, just before Memorial Day weekend, they will conduct their third annual rest area initiative.  That initiative, pushed back to coincide with the Memorial Day kick-off of a statewide radio ad campaign, is sponsored by the Midwest Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund and the east and west Missouri regional LECET offices.


In Indiana, which last year suffered through the worst highway construction season in many years when five Laborers were killed, Laborers will launch a major radio campaign aimed at the driving public on April 2.  The campaign will feature several ads, each with a tag from the state’s Commissioner of Labor.  At a cost of $75,000, the ads will run on alternating weeks throughout the summer, playing on 60 stations and hitting all 92 counties statewide.  According the radio network airing the ads, they will reach approximately 621,300 drivers once a week and 379,400 drivers three times a week.  LECET, the LHSFNA and the Midwest Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund, along with local unions across Indiana, helped finance the campaign.

“The efforts of district councils, local unions and our training, health and safety and LECET funds are exemplary and will make a difference,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan, noting that more Laborers are hurt or killed on roadway projects than on any other kind of construction jobsite.  “The biggest problem is designing programs that will reach and influence the driving public.  Protecting Laborers requires improved performance by the public, law enforcement, contractors and increased skills and knowledge of LIUNA members.”

More Work, Greater Concerns

The nation’s highway system is aging and in need of extensive repair.  Congress addressed this reality when it adopted record spending in the $286.4 billion highway construction bill in 2005, known as SAFETEA-LU.  However, to minimize disruption, more work than ever will be done at night.  This will impose significant new dangers for construction companies and their workers, as well as the driving public.

The overall number of work zone fatalities in the U.S. – drivers, passengers and workers – increased nearly 50 percent between 1997 and 2004.  The vast majority of these (about 90 percent) were the drivers and passengers in the vehicles that crashed into work zones.  However, although not nearly as steep, worker fatalities also increased in recent years (see chart).

“Despite the growing traffic volume, the rising number of work zone crashes and the soaring number of public fatalities,” says O’Sullivan, “we’ve been able to limit the increase in worker fatalities by greatly improving the way we work within work zones.  Nevertheless, the overall number is far too high and stronger efforts are needed to reduce these casualties in coming years.”

Protecting against the Driving Public

Most fatalities and injuries – roughly 60 percent – occur inside the work zone.  Of these, about a third result from intrusions by the driving public.  The other 40 percent occur outside the work zone, about three in five the result of crashes.  Thus, of approximately 100 worker fatalities each year, 40 to 45 are caused by the driving public.

The Laborers have long supported a number of initiatives in hopes of limiting these casualties.  More police presence, double fines for speeding in work zones and media campaigns for responsible driving all help, yet have limited effect because a disproportionate number of the drivers in these crashes (about 40 percent) are impaired by alcohol or drugs.

The most hopeful defense against the danger from drunk drivers is positive protection – a physical barrier that separates the work zone from outside traffic flow.  However, the fluid, moving nature of roadway work zones makes the erection or placing of barriers a time-consuming and costly process.  In recent years, the problem has been partially addressed by the development of new systems of moveable barriers that make positive protection more cost effective on large-scale roadway projects.

Until recently, efforts to reach drivers with warnings to be alert in work zones also lacked impact simply because the vast numbers of work zones and the huge numbers of drivers required spending beyond the capacity of most states and jurisdictions.  However, the advent of photo enforced traffic monitoring offers renewed potential.

Illinois was the first state to authorize photo enforcement.  Beginning in 2005, speeders were fined $375 for a first offense and $1000 for a second.  Some of the fine is used to pay for additional, onsite state police presence.  The first studies on the program’s effectiveness should be available next year.

Protecting against Non-Public Hazards

Somewhat less than half of all work zone catastrophes are caused by the driving public.  Approximately 15 workers are killed each year outside the work zone due to contacts with overhead power lines, gas line explosions or falls from machinery or structures (as when placing traffic signage).  Another 40 are killed within the work zone.  About half of these are struck by moving construction equipment, usually a backing dump truck.

It is during these incidents that the efforts of Laborers and signatory employers can have the most direct impact.  Improved training, internal traffic control plans and sharper focus on backing dangers can dramatically lower these fatalities.

Training efforts will get a boost due to a $4.1 million grant awarded to the LHSFNA, the Laborers-AGC and a variety of new and old roadway safety partners by the Federal Highway Administration to attack the problem.   Much of the four-year effort will be modeled on the highly acclaimed Roadway Safety Program, a CD-based training program that addresses 14 major work zone hazards.  The current CD will be enhanced with some additional modules – including night work – and a companion CD, aimed at supervisors and management personnel, will be developed.  Laborers-AGC will be updating its Hazard Awareness and Flagger courses and developing new courses for Traffic Control Technicians and Supervisors.  As the new products are brought online, a concerted, national effort to advance safety training will be implemented.

By requiring more thoughtful planning and daily implementation, internal traffic control plans (ITCPs) can limit serious work zone incidents.  Already, state DOTs require traffic control plans to route the public around a work zone.  Also needed are ITCPs to manage the flow of workers and vehicles within the work zone.  As construction companies and their safety personnel gain experience with this kind of planning, they will exert much greater and stricter control over everything that goes on in the work zone.

One aspect of ITCPs is limiting vehicle backing within the zone which, in turns, limits the possibility of backover injuries.  Backing dangers can also be addressed through better and more consistent use of spotters and through improved truck-mounted technology (e.g., video cameras and radar/sonar warning systems) that warn drivers when workers on foot are in their blind spot.

The National Work Zone Safety Awareness Week provides a well-timed opportunity for all roadway workers and supervisors to review the hazards presented in this necessary and sometimes dangerous work.  Refresher training and vigilance, in combination with the training, technological and enforcement enhancements now in the pipeline, should help the industry reduce serious injuries and fatalities in the years immediately ahead.


These resources are available through the LHSFNA online publications catalogue:

Roadway Safety Program (CD-based training program)
Highway Work Zone Safety Checklist (52-page pocket guide)
Positive Protection (four-fold pamphlet)
Internal Traffic Control Plans (14-page pamphlet)
Highway Workzone Safety Manual

[Steve Clark]