Building Safer Highway Work Zones: Measures to Prevent Worker Injuries From Vehicles and Equipment

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National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

Summary Statement

A comprehensive study of fatalities and injuries in highway workzones and a set of measures that can be taken to reduce them.
April 20001

Construction contractors, contracting agencies, and others responsible for work zone safety face the challenge of providing a safe workplace while ensuring the safe movement of the public through the work zone. Highway and street construction presents a complex work situation in which workers face multiple injury risks under conditions that may change without warning.

Highway workers are at risk of injury from passing traffic vehicles:
An 18-year-old flagger, outfitted in full reflective vest, pants, and hard hat, was directing traffic at one end of a bridge approach during a night milling operation. The work zone was correctly marked with cones and signs, and the entire bridge was illuminated with street lights. The flagger was standing under portable flood lights in the opposing traffic lane close to the center line, facing oncoming traffic. A pickup truck traveling in the wrong lane at an estimated 55 to 60 miles per hour struck the flagger head on and carried him approximately 200 feet. He died at the scene of multiple traumatic injuries [Minnesota Department of Health 1992].

Highway workers are at risk of injury from construction equipment operating inside the work zone and in ancillary areas that support the work zone (e.g., temporary batch plants):
A 33-year-old construction laborer was working at a gravel-unloading operation at a highway construction site. His usual work assignment was to operate the generator for the conveyor system that moved gravel unloaded from belly dump trailers. A dump truck driver on the site was having difficulty opening the gates of his belly dump trailer. Attempting to assist the driver, the laborer went under the trailer to manually open the gates. The driver, not realizing the laborer was under the trailer, pulled away from the unloading platform and ran over him with the rear dual tires of the trailer. The laborer was pronounced dead at the scene [Minnesota Department of Health 1997].

Highway workers are at risk of injury from construction vehicles operating inside work zones, as well as construction vehicles entering and leaving the work zone:
An 11-person construction crew was paving the northbound side of a 6-lane interstate highway. The far left and middle lanes of the highway were closed to traffic, with two pavers operating simultaneously in staggered positions. Hot asphalt was delivered to the site in tractor-trailers which queued on the left shoulder while waiting to back up to the pavers. A 34-year-old construction laborer was positioned adjacent to the far left lane, approximately 12 feet behind the paver's work area, shoveling old asphalt from around a catch basin. A tractor-trailer pulled away from the paver in the middle lane and began backing. The driver stopped when he heard other workers yelling. Exiting the vehicle, he found the laborer run over by the four left rear wheels. The laborer was pronounced dead at the scene [Massachusetts Department of Public Health 1996].

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) provides for uniform design and setup of highway work zones, and includes guidance for the development of temporary traffic control plans (TCPs) that determine the flow of traffic through work zones [FHWA 2000]. The Millennium Edition of the MUTCD, which went into effect on January 17, 2001, includes new signs and pavement markings, changes in both standards and guidance, new sections, and changes in Part 6, which covers work zones. The last full-scale revision of the MUTCD was in 1978; however, frequent updates have been made to specific sections of the MUTCD since that time. States have until January 17, 2003 to reach substantial conformance with the Millennium Edition of the MUTCD; therefore, both the Millennium Edition and the previous edition [FHWA 1998a] are listed in the reference section.

OSHA construction industry regulations (29 CFR* 1926, Subpart O) address operation of vehicles and equipment within an off-highway job site not open to public traffic. However, Subpart O is not exhaustive in its coverage of machinery types or safety equipment, nor does it address work practices, traffic control plans, or shift work. Flagging and signaling practices are discussed in general terms in Subpart G, which covers signs, signals, and barricades. Subpart G defers to the 1971 MUTCD on matters relating to hand signals, barricades, and traffic control devices.

Compliance with the MUTCD and OSHA regulations is a necessary first step in providing a safe work environment. However, these sources, taken together, do not provide comprehensive guidance to ensure worker safety in highway work zones. To identify gaps in standards and regulations and to compile additional prevention measures to enhance worker safety, NIOSH undertook a comprehensive review of scientific literature, fatality and injury data, and current safety research. NIOSH also convened a workshop attended by a broad range of stakeholders in work zone safety. The NIOSH workshop, "Preventing Vehicle- and Equipment-Related Occupational Injuries in Highway and Street Construction Work Zones," held in Washington, D.C., December 2 through December 4, 1998, investigated the following areas of concern:

  • Safety of all workers on foot around traffic vehicles
  • Safe operation of construction vehicles and equipment in highway work zones
  • Planning for safe operations within work zones
  • Special safety issues associated with night work in highway construction.
The workshop was attended by over 50 individuals from government, labor, industry, academia, and state departments of transportation. In breakout sessions addressing the four topic areas, participants were presented with questions to stimulate discussion about preventing occupational injuries in highway work zones. Their shared information, experiences, research results, resources, opinions, and recommendations were the starting point for this document.

Through synthesis of current research on highway work zone safety with input provided by participants in the December, 1998 workshop, this document offers additional measures that contractors, contracting agencies, policy makers, manufacturers, law enforcement, and the research community can take to reduce occupational injuries in highway work zones. This document also includes an Appendix with descriptions of highway construction fatalities investigated through the NIOSH Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) program. Each fatality description includes case-specific prevention recommendations.

The measures described in this document reflect ideas for reducing highway work zone injuries generated by a broad cross-section of key stakeholders. Some prevention measures are ready to be used; others deserve additional consideration and research. The material presented here does not constitute an all-inclusive checklist. Rather, the document provides a listing of interventions from which contractors, contracting agencies, and other entities may choose those most appropriate to their situations and needs. Readers should not view these prevention measures as official NIOSH recommendations.

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