Making Construction Zones Safer

A construction worker on a bridge above water, wearing a hard hat and a safety harness as he works. Adequate construction site safety policies and practices are necessary to protect construction workers.

Spring and summer are approaching, bringing all their usual bustle: vacations, evenings on porches and patios, road trips, forays to the beach, jogging at dawn and biking home from work. But it’s important to remember that the better weather often comes with an increase in road and highway construction projects. The safety of the public is an important consideration whenever roadwork or construction takes place, which we’ll explore further in a future post, but today we want to talk about how we can help keep the workers safe. Many of us have driven past construction sites on the interstate where the workers are only a few feet away from the flow of traffic, and often this work takes place late at night when visibility is low. But the public isn’t actually the biggest source of danger to these workers. More roadway construction workers are killed each year by construction equipment and vehicles than by on-road vehicles. How can we make construction sites safer?

Construction Sites Need Site-Specific Traffic Plans

While most construction sites have Traffic Control Plans (TCP) that must be filed as part of the construction permit process, these plans often overlook the danger to workers on the job site. Sometimes TCPs are called Temporary Traffic Control Plans (TTCP), and this term best describes the roadway construction projects where the work moves with progress made on the involved roadway. Whether stationary or “temporary,” every construction site that abuts a public way needs to have a traffic control plan in place, not just for cars but also for the people who have to work there every day. We are sometimes surprised in our third party workers compensation cases and personal injury lawsuits when we take the deposition of a contractor’s safety manager and discover that they do not make the Internal Traffic Control Plan (ITCP) a core part of every job site safety plan.

The basic role played by the ITCP is to separate the machinery and construction vehicles from workers on foot. While most safety folks know you need flaggers and spotters on a job site for moving equipment safely, it is just as important to job site safety to include in the design and planning stages a hazard or risk assessment. Just as the design process should include foreseeable items for planning, the ITCP should include a realistic plan for worker safety. For example, does the highway project involve work at night under artificial lights? Do some pieces of equipment make noise that will mask the sound of an approaching vehicle? There is simply no excuse for failing to create a safe work site when it has been known for at least ten years from available studies that a large percentage of deaths on the site result from being run over. For example, of 639 fatal occupational injuries that were reviewed at road construction sites between 2003 and 2007, 305 were due to a worker being struck by a vehicle or mobile equipment. [See Fatal Occupational Injuries at Road Construction Sites, 2003-07, Monthly Labor Review, November 2010.]

And the dangers to workers include not only being run over, but also caught in between pinch points or being hit by moving equipment parts. If workers cannot be kept out of the hazard zone, then spotters, flaggers and guarding must be used to reduce the danger. Examples include using chains, cables and barriers to prevent contact between workers and moving equipment parts.

The Role of Safety Managers

Of course, having a great ITCP in place means nothing if there is no management and enforcement on the job site. “Enforcement” means a lot more than ordering workers about or “writing up” safety violations. If workers are “violating” the rules with a particular machine or piece of equipment it is usually because there is something so goofed up about its operation that it is impossible to get the job done in a timely manner without cutting corners. When a safety professional learns about these “violations,” it is important not to “punish” the offender but instead to attempt to listen and understand WHY someone has to go around a guard to be able to do their job, and then force management to provide a better and safer machine or redesigned guard to avoid the hazard in the first place.

In our cases we frequently encounter a “safety person” who keeps a tally of job site injuries and equipment collision damage. All too often, when we’re taking their depositions after a serious injury has occurred, when we ask “what measures did you take after you saw that piece of equipment was involved in other on site collisions with property damage?” we hear in response “I talked to the operators and told them to be more careful.” Be more careful? What?! Everyone is being as careful as they know how to be on the job site and still get the job done. It is the safety person’s job to study why the collisions are occurring, not just give lip service to a “safer” work site. If a particular piece of equipment is being run into stuff it is probably due to a “blind spot” that should not exist. We know from our roadway collision cases that it is a gigantic cop-out to say a crash occurred because someone was in the “blind spot” or that a wreck occurred because someone was “blinded by the sun” and “could not see.” What professional drivers and operators learn is “if you don’t know don’t go.” If you can’t see, don’t move the equipment until you can see. If the sun is in your eyes and you cannot see, stop or pull over and change your angle of approach. It is not worth it to hurt someone because you could have seen what was plainly there if only your truck had an extra mirror put on by the company, or a better sun visor installed in the cab. No worker wants to be remembered by the boss as the one who shut down the job “for safety reasons.” It is only by carefully interviewing workers on the jobsite that the safety manager can learn what hazards are causing unsafe practices by workers trying their best to get the job done.

Common Sense Reforms Make Construction Sites Safer for Everyone

In sum, here are a few common-sense measures construction sites can and should consider implementing to protect workers.

  • ITCPs: Every construction site should make and implement an Internal Traffic Control Plan to separate workers on foot from the heavy equipment.
  • On-site internal traffic control personnel, including flaggers and spotters. This is especially important when heavy equipment must move or in limited visibility conditions.
  • “If you don’t know, don’t go” policies: address any “blind spots” via flaggers, spotters, and modifying equipment to have appropriate mirrors, cameras, and/or sun-shades. It’s also important for workers to know that no deadline is more important than preserving their own safety and the safety of their colleagues.
  • Protective guards and barriers: sites should use chains, cables, and barriers to separate workers from moving equipment or equipment parts.
  • Appointing a properly trained Safety Manager
  • Training for emergencies: workers should be briefed on emergency traffic control plans, as well as plans and protocols for how to rescue and evacuate coworkers in the event of an accident or injury
  • Regular job site safety meetings: Safety on the site can’t be solved once and then set aside—workers and management need to check in regularly to make sure the site is as safe as it can be as the work continues and conditions change.

A shortened version of this article first appeared in print and online in Northwest Labor Press. You can find that version of this article here