According to Work Zone Safety, an organization dedicated to promoting safety in the transportation construction industry, national work zone fatalities have increased from 586 in 2010 to 842 in 2019. With the current emphasis on enhancing our country’s infrastructure, these numbers could increase without the proper occupational safety and health protocols in place.
The rise in construction work zone accidents and fatalities is also a concern at the state level, resulting in many state governments and governmental agencies taking action. As a result of the injuries and fatalities in Alabama, for instance, the Alabama Legislature increased the penalty for moving violations in work zones in July 2021 to $250 or double the fine for the offense, whichever is greater. The increased penalty applies when workers are present in the road construction work zone. The decision to update the penalty was due, in part, to the 2,378 work zone crashes that occurred in Alabama during 2020, which resulted in 19 fatalities and hundreds of injuries. The hope is that the increased penalties for non-compliance will result in fewer fatalities.
Another alarming trend with construction work zone accidents is that a proportionally high number of work zone accidents resulting in fatalities and injuries are attributed to large truck traffic. The number of fatalities resulting from such incidents has been increasing and could be due to factors such as decreased maneuverability and greater stopping distances required for more massive vehicles. Also, 65% of fatal accidents occur in the daylight hours and it is much more likely for fatal accidents to occur on a standard weekday. Most fatal work zone accidents involving large trucks also tend to occur on divided highways and on level, straight roads. This suggests that most such accidents are not necessarily related to unusual terrain or limited visibility.
Given the statistics, accidents in road construction work zones continue to be a problem that needs to be addressed, and the good news is there are existing procedures and protocols designed to address this issue.
Road construction companies can do their part by following well established road construction safety regulations and guidelines. The primary guide for road construction employers is the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD). As of 2009, this document was required to be followed in all states and covers such issues as ensuring uniformity in highway signs, road markings and traffic control devices. It also included parameters for establishing precautions for road construction work zones, flagging operations, appropriate warning signs and barricades.
Drivers also have an important role to help decrease the number of accidents in work zones. Slowing down while approaching and driving through work zones, wearing safety belts, leaving enough space between vehicles to stop if necessary, and paying attention to directions provided by flaggers are all seemingly simple steps that can make a big impact. One may also plan ahead by utilizing state road construction websites to avoid work zones altogether. These precautions should be considered by commercial drivers and should be covered in company driver training, along with other precautions that are important to driver safety as it relates to the types of vehicles being driven.
While road construction is both beneficial for our national infrastructure and economy, data proves that this specific area of construction can result in serious injuries and even death. Not only is it important for road construction employers to follow the appropriate guidance to help ensure the safety of their workers, but it is also important for commercial carriers to train their workers in the area of safe driving through work zones. Lastly, it is important all motorists exercise caution on the road.
If we work together, we can significantly decrease the number of work zone accidents, injuries and fatalities in the transportation construction industry.
Dan Corcoran, Ph.D., CIH, CSP®, is the academic program director for Columbia Southern University’s occupational safety and health and environmental management programs.
For more than 25 years, Columbia Southern University has been a leader in occupational safety and health education. Taught by experienced safety experts, CSU’s bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in occupational safety and health are recognized by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals as Graduate Safety Practitioner® Qualified Academic Programs.