Stay in Your Lane: Roadmap to work zone safety

By Katie Kuehner-Hebert | May 15, 2023
Getty images / AlonzoDesign

Electricians and lineworkers routinely face work site electrical hazards, but when working on roadway projects, there’s a whole host of additional issues.




Electricians and lineworkers routinely face work site electrical hazards, but when working on roadway projects, there’s a whole host of additional issues.

Apart from constant exposure to electrical contacts, falls from heights such as poles and bucket trucks are a primary hazard that needs to be controlled, said Bradley Sant, senior vice president of safety and education at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), Washington, DC.

“But on roadway project sites that can’t be closed to the public and blocked off from motorists passing inches away and often traveling at high speeds—that is where workers are likely to be injured or killed in what we call ‘struck-by incidents,’” Sant said.

Workers can also sometimes get struck by large pieces of equipment operating inside the construction site, he said. Since utilities typically run in tandem with transportation infrastructure, workers face risks coming from all directions—above, below and all around.

Bradley Sant

The sphere of safety approach

“We encourage workers to think of themselves working in a gigantic bubble and to be aware of the hazards that may penetrate that ‘sphere of safety,’” Sant said.

Above them are overhead power lines, bridge overpasses and other elevated work areas from which tools or other objects can fall, he said. When power lines are buried and excavation work is taking place, electrical shock can occur after contact with an energized source. If crews are working at heights, there are fall hazards, and then there are struck-by incidents on each side.

“Workers need to protect themselves inside that imaginary sphere from hazards all around,” Sant said. “It’s a very dangerous environment, not only for construction workers, but also for the motoring public.”

Electrical contractors can communicate to their workers about the need to create this sphere of safety by promoting the concept in toolbox talks and incorporating it in their training programs, he said. ARTBA developed the concept, and promoted it through the National Stand-down to Prevent Struck-by Incidents, April 17–21, a campaign headed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 

OSHA has several construction standards required to prevent struck-by and caught-in or between hazards, said Kimberly Darby, a spokesperson from the agency’s office of communications. 

“Employers are required to provide personal protective and lifesaving equipment, signs, signals and barricades, and there are requirements when using hand and power tools and construction motor vehicles and conducting excavations,” she said. “Employers can protect workers from falls using conventional means such as guardrail, safety net and personal fall arrest systems, adopting safe work practices and providing appropriate training.”

Darby said there is “an abundance of information” on OSHA’s new Infrastructure Safety and Health web page, including electrocution hazards in construction, including OSHA standards related to wiring, equipment maintenance and lockout and tagout.

One important protective measure on roadway construction projects is temporary traffic control, although it can be a challenge for electrical contractors that don’t often work on such projects, Sant said.

“The practice is well understood by other types of contractors that often work on long-duration roadway projects, but not well understood by electrical contractors who sometimes only perform short-duration work,” he said.

The Federal Highway Administration publishes its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or MUTCD, and some states adapt that standard into state-specific versions, Sant said.

“It’s important for contractors to understand the principles that are outlined by the MUTCD—to provide sufficient advanced warning to the motoring public so that they can understand what’s going to happen ahead,” he said. “Work may be intruding into a lane, and so motorists need to know how to conduct themselves to keep both themselves and the workers safe.”

Signs should be placed at certain distances in advance of the work site, depending on the type of road and traffic speed. After the signs, traffic control devices such as cones, drums or concrete barriers need to be placed to redirect traffic. Motorists need to be given warnings, directions and adequate buffer space to move out of their travel lane and into an alternate course so they won’t be surprised when the roadway looks different than anticipated.

The need for proper setup

“I’ve seen many incidents in these kinds of work zones because the contractors did not properly set up temporary traffic control well enough in advance, or there were not enough devices to properly direct motorists into an alternate path,” Sant said. “Understanding the principles of MUTCD is very important.”

Historically, utilities and contractors managed their traffic protection internally. This was made easier by lighter traffic patterns, less stringent regulatory requirements and less demanding billing structures, such as time and equipment, said Mike Starner, NECA’s executive director of outside line safety.

Bradley Sant

“Today, contractors must make efficient use of crew resources by outsourcing tasks that can be performed safely and more economically by others,” Starner said.

Traffic control vendors are experts in establishing work zones that meet regulatory requirements and deploy the types of equipment necessary for an event-free road work operation, he said. Such items include truck-mounted attenuators, advanced lighting systems and enough cones and signs to effectively communicate with motorists. Vendors also establish proper buffer zones that reduce the likelihood of encroachment.

Electrical contractors should involve anyone managing traffic in job-brief conversations, Starner said. These conversations should address communication between crew members and traffic managers, worst case scenarios and how to protect and respond to a work zone encroachment.

“Work zones are problematic since the crew has limited control over motorists passing through,” he said. “The objectives should be high visibility, effective communication, adequate buffer zones, properly applied traffic control devices and, most importantly, paying attention to the effectiveness of the traffic control plan and having the ability to make changes on the fly.” 

Electrical hazards above and below

Outside workers must keep the “sphere of safety” in mind.Overhead and buried power lines at construction sites are especially hazardous because they carry extremely high voltage. Fatal electrocution is the main risk, and burns and falls are also a concern. Using tools and equipment that can contact power lines increases the risk.

Examples of equipment that can contact power lines:

  • Aluminum paint rollers
  • Backhoes
  • Concrete pumpers
  • Cranes 
  • Long-handled cement finishing floats
  • Metal building materials
  • Metal ladders
  • Raised dump truck beds
  • Scaffolds 

How workers can avoid hazards:

  • Look for overhead power lines and buried power line indicators. Post warning signs.
  • Contact utilities for buried power line locations.
  • Stay at least 10 feet away from overhead power lines.
  • Unless you know otherwise, assume that overhead lines are energized.
  • De-energize and ground lines when working near them. Other protective measures include guarding or insulating the lines.
  • Use nonconductive wood or fiberglass ladders when working near power lines.

Header image: Getty images / AlonzoDesign

About The Author

KUEHNER-HEBERT is a freelance writer based in Running Springs, Calif. She has more than three decades of journalism experience. Reach her at [email protected].  





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