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Reviewing Work Zone Protections: Keeping employees safe on the road

Getty images / Daniel Avram
Getty images / Daniel Avram
Published On
Sep 15, 2022

In today’s fast-paced world, how often do we drive by a work zone? I would say pretty often if you live in an area of high growth like I do. Ask yourself this—did the placement of traffic placards and safety cones give proper notice of the upcoming work zone, and was I paying attention to the issue? Even if all things were done properly, incidents injuring those in work zones are still frequent throughout the country. Yes, many incidents are due to distracted or careless driving, but some are the direct result of improper setup of temporary work zone protection.

Work zone injuries continue to rise each year and are caused by passing motorists, construction vehicles and equipment. When looking at the work we do, some of the highest injury rates occur in roadway work sites during construction activities.

Employee protections

What can we do to protect workers? While we can’t stop the distracted or careless driver, we can control our own work sites to give employees the protections necessary and send them home at the end of the day.

To provide the utmost safety for workers, plans need to be in place to properly set up work-zone protections. Emphasis should be placed on work-zone hazards each day during the tailboard. Discuss the work, the equipment used and how it will affect the public using the roadway. Also explain the project’s duration and discuss the anticipated effects on traffic flow and how they can be lessened. By communicating these items, the work zone dangers will be reinforced. It is also essential that proper PPE (hi-vis vests, traffic cones, warning signs, etc.) is available for all employees.

Protection plans

Properly setting up a temporary work zone protection is essential to the crews’ safety. Whenever a job affects the roadway conditions for drivers, a temporary traffic control zone is needed. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Lighting (if the job is during the evening and night hours), visibility, weather, road congestion and any changing work conditions can all affect safe and efficient traffic movement and worker safety—these all should be taken into consideration when developing a plan.

When setting up a temporary work zone, consider an advance warning area (signage a safe distance before the work zone), transition area (cones that will transition away from the work area), activity area (barricades that separate the work zone from the motorist with enough safe space for workers to move and complete their jobs) and a termination area (safe transition out of the work zone area to resume normal traffic patterns). Always remember to avoid abrupt lane changes, provide adequate warning to the motorist, use flaggers when necessary, schedule work during slow traffic hours and provide notice of an alternative route, if available.

New guidelines

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) publishes guidelines to follow in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The manual covers the parameters (signage, cones, proper sign and speed limit distances, etc.) on how to properly set up a temporary work zone and enables employers to protect their employees. It contains many scenarios that show how to set up proper work zones using the required equipment and offers resources to answer questions.

As with any regulatory guidance document, it is constantly under revision, but with various holdups over the last few administrations, the manual hasn’t been updated recently. It is anticipated that FHWA will publish updated guidelines by May 2023, with a requirement to revise and update every four years after. For now, follow the 2009 version of these guidelines.

As more vehicles are on the road with greater congestion, refocus efforts to ensure that work zone safety is a high priority for drivers and workers.

About the Author

Chuck Kelly

Kelly, president of Kelly Consulting & Mediation Services, has worked with utility industry leaders on safety, labor relations and human resources for more than 30 years. Reach him at 540-686-0118 or

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