Work Zone Safety

Five minutes ago you were sitting on top of the world.You just completed a bid for one of the biggest projects your company has ever had the opportunity to bid on. And, you’re in a field of your own. No one can match your expertise and pricing on this particular project. You have two hours to travel 10 miles (eight of which are highway miles) and get the bid in on time.

Now you’re sitting in traffic wondering what idiot is slowing things down. As you inch forward, you notice a work zone sign. There doesn’t appear to be any lane closures and you know there were no crews out earlier that day. Time continues to waste. Now 30 minutes of travel time may become two hours. Can’t they build roads and maintain good traffic flow at the same time? If only other trades could work as efficiently as electricians.

Just then, you see the work area and one of your trucks. You forgot a maintenance crew was scheduled to bore a hole under that roadway and lay the casing for a fiber optic cable. Now you see the ambulance. One of your guys was hit while marking the direction and depth for the boring machine. All of a sudden, your perspective changes.

Unfortunately, this scenario is far too possible. In fact, the part about the fatality was true. America’s highways are aging and traffic congestion is at an all-time high. Between 1980 and 1998, vehicle travel increased by 72 percent. During the same period, the amount of “road miles” increased by only 1 percent. Travel surveys show that 32 percent of roadway users are dissatisfied with work zones, including utility work and trades working near roadways that partially block a lane.

Today more work is being performed near traffic. Exposure to hazards can be expected to increase proportionally. Contractors are experiencing reduced work hours, interrupted shifts, compressed schedules and increased night work. They fear these changes may lead to reduced productivity and compromised quality. Each year 823 fatalities and more than 35,000 injuries occur in construction work zones, including an average of 125 construction worker deaths.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulate work zones and are already promoting legislation to further protect workers and vehicular traffic from accidents. FHWA regulates traffic safety in street and highway work zones. They have the daunting task of maximizing the availability of roadways under construction while minimizing hazards to users and workers. They also attempt to balance the issues of mobility and safety. OSHA focuses on employee safety. Subpart G of 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), the OSHA rules for construction, covers Signs, Signals and Barricades (1926.200(g) Traffic signs, 1926.201(a) Flagmen, and 1926.202 Barricades.

The existing rules and scheduled revisions, as well as both agencies refer to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) for controlling work zone safety. The current OSHA rule requires employers to conform to the 1971 edition of the MUTCD. The revised standard would require compliance with the Millennium Edition or Revision 3.

Regardless of the edition, the basics are the same. A temporary traffic control plan must be developed to describe measures to be used for facilitating motorists and others through a work zone. The complexity of the plan depends on need. Plans should be prepared by persons knowledgeable in temporary traffic control and the work activities to be performed. Consideration should be given to the proper channeling of traffic and the safety of workers, motorists and pedestrians. Special plans may be needed for the preparation and coordination with other agencies and for emergency situations.

The plans will delineate a temporary traffic control zone, an area of the highway where conditions are changed and which incorporates a work zone where construction, maintenance or utility work occurs. Zones are marked by signs, channelizing devices, barriers, pavement markings and work vehicles.

A temporary traffic control zone is divided into four areas: the advance warning area, the transition area, the activity area and the termination area. The advance warning area is the section of highway where drivers are informed of the upcoming work zone. The transition area is where drivers are directed out of their normal path. Work activity takes place in the activity area and the termination area is used to return drivers to their normal path.

The key to a successful plan and establishment of a traffic control zone is based on two factors. The first is the ability to modify the plan for a given project. Second, appropriate control devices such as flagmen, signs and barricades must be used to maintain traffic flow and prevent accidents. You should become familiar with the MUTCD. Monitor the regulatory changes proposed by FHWA and OSHA. As changes occur, take appropriate action to protect workers. These actions should be included in the planning of each project and implemented. EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a producer of safety manuals with training videos and software for contractors. Based in Alexandria, Va., he can be reached at 703.628.4326, or by e-mail at

About the Author

Joe O'Connor

Freelance Writer
Joe O'Connor is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@inte...

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