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

| |
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

Between 1992 and 1998, the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) reported 841 worker fatalities in SIC 1611 (Highway and Street Construction) [Bureau of Labor Statistics: unpublished data]. As Table 1 shows, the majority of fatalities in this industry occurred in work zones, with vehicle and equipment-related incidents similar to those described above the predominant type of fatal event.

Table 1. Fatalities in the highway and street construction industry (SIC 1611), CFOI, 1992-1998
Occurred in a highway or street construction work zone: 492 58.5
  Vehicle or equipment-related
  Other event
Occurred outside a work zone: 349 41.5
  Vehicle or equipment-related
  Other event
Total 841 100

Among the 492 work zone fatalities, the leading occupations were construction laborer (42%), truck driver (9%), construction trades supervisor (8%), and operating engineer (8%). The most common primary sources of injury were trucks (45%), road grading and surfacing machinery (15%), and cars (15%). Seventy-four percent of the work zone fatality victims were employed privately, the remainder by state or local governments (13% each).

In 318 of the 465 vehicle and equipment-related fatalities within work zones, a worker on foot was struck by a vehicle. Victims of these events were as likely to be struck by a construction vehicle (154 fatalities) as by a passing traffic vehicle (152 fatalities). Incidents involving backing vehicles were prominent among the 154 worker-on-foot fatalities that occurred within the confines of the work zone (51%).

The primary injury sources for fatalities of workers on foot struck by a construction vehicle within the work zone were trucks (61%) and construction machines (30%). For fatalities involving a traffic vehicle, the major injury sources were more evenly divided among cars (43%) and trucks (47%). In all but 13 of the incidents involving a traffic vehicle, the motorist left the traffic space and intruded into the work space, striking the worker. For 108 (71%) of these intrusion fatalities, the CFOI narrative denoted the worker's activity at the time of the incident. The most prominent work tasks were repairing the road (41), flagging (27), and setting or moving traffic control devices (24).

In 110 fatalities, the victim was operating a vehicle or mobile construction equipment. For vehicle and equipment operators, the primary injury sources were construction machines (53%) and trucks (26%). Thirty-eight of the 110 workers operating equipment at the time of injury (35%) were not classified in equipment operating professions. An additional 26 victims were passengers, and location could not be determined for 11 workers [Bureau of Labor Statistics: unpublished data].

In addition to vehicle- and equipment-related hazards, CFOI and other sources report that highway workers are at risk of injury or death from contact with overhead power lines, falls from machinery or structures, gas line explosions, or being struck by falling objects or materials [Blacklow and Hoffner 1996; Bryden and Andrew 1999; Ore and Fosbroke 1997; Pigman and Agent 1990; Bureau of Labor Statistics: unpublished data].

Data collection systems for nonfatal occupational injuries do not provide sufficient detail to estimate the number of workers injured in work zones nationally. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses are reported for all of SIC 1611, with no separate tabulations for work zone incidents provided. Further, these data cover private construction firms only (public entities engaged in highway construction and maintenance are excluded). BLS Survey data for 1997 indicate that there were an estimated 22,200 injuries to employees of private highway and street construction contractors; 8,767 of these resulted in days away from work. Injuries to workers in SIC 1611 resulted in a median 7 days away from work, compared with 8 days for all construction industry injuries. In SIC 1611, 23.5% of the days-away-from-work injuries resulted in 31 or more days away from work [Bureau of Labor Statistics 1999].

An analysis of 240 incidents involving serious injuries to workers on highway and bridge construction projects in New York State confirms that highway workers are at risk of severe nonfatal injuries from being struck by or run over by traffic vehicles or by construction vehicles and equipment [Bryden and Andrew 1999]. This analysis, which covered incidents occurring between 1993 and 1997, revealed that although traffic accounted for 22% of worker injuries and 43% of worker deaths in New York, the remaining cases resulted from construction incidents not involving traffic. The most frequently occurring type of serious injury incident involved workers struck by construction vehicles or large equipment, which included 44 hospitalized injuries and 3 fatalities.

Fatal and nonfatal injury data suggest a need to focus work zone safety efforts beyond issues of motorist safety. Clearly, safety efforts must address eliminating vehicle crashes of the motoring public traveling through work zones while ensuring the safety of workers who work adjacent to traffic. However, safety efforts must also protect construction workers within work zones who are working on foot around moving vehicles and equipment, as well as those who are operating dump trucks, rollers, pavers, and other pieces of construction equipment.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) authorized approximately $80 billion for highway and bridge construction between FY 1998 and FY 2003, the majority of which provides for rehabilitation of existing highways [Federal Highway Administration 1999]. Because of increased spending under TEA-21, the number of workers employed in highway and street construction is likely to increase. Further, the emphasis on rehabilitation rather than construction of new highways means that more highway workers will continue to confront the dual injury risks posed by passing traffic vehicles and by construction equipment moving within the work zone [National Transportation Safety Board 1992].

Back to Contents