Most road construction site deaths from construction vehicles, not public

More than half of fatal injuries suffered by road construction workers were due to a worker being struck by a worksite vehicle or construction equipment rather than an automobile that invaded the site from the roadway, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The BLS report, authored by Office of Safety, Health and Working Conditions economist Stephen Pelgula, was published in the agency’s December Monthly Labor Review. It analyzed the cause of 844 worker deaths occurring in road construction sites from 1995 to 2002.

Approximately 60 percent of the 844 deaths (509 workers) that occurred at road construction sites were the result of injuries sustained inside the construction area, according to the report. Texas had the most incidents of this kind at 9 percent (46 fatalities), followed by Florida with 7 percent and California, Pennsylvania and Ohio at 6 percent each.

“The nature of road work has changed; it’s no longer evergreen construction,” said Matt Jeanneret, vice president of communications with the American Road and Transportation Builder’s Association.

Jeanneret said the combination of fewer new roads being built, an aging infrastructure and an increasing number of motorists equates to an increased risk for road construction workers. He said more nighttime roadwork and higher work zone speed limits also add to the danger.

“It’s a really tough work environment to be in,” he said. “[Road construction workers] are public servants of the highest order. They are heroes to us.”

ARTBA, using a grant from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is providing four- and 10-hour training seminars for its members, who make up the majority of the private road construction industry. Jeanneret estimates more than 500 contractors were trained last year.

Brian Deery, senior director of the highway and transportation division of the Associated General Contractors of America, said constricting worker mobility within road construction sites puts them at risk of injury or death.

“You’ve got to look at mobility when designing these work zones,” Deery said.

Deery said the AGC and other professional construction organizations’ safety concerns differ from those held by the Federal Highway Administration. He said the FHWA focuses primarily on the safety of the driving public, and not enough on road construction workers.

The reason for decreasing the size of road construction sites is to increase the speed of motorists, who often log complaints with government officials. Deery said this presents a catch-22 in that the goal of most road construction projects is to relieve congestion, making travel time shorter in the long term.

“We’re concerned about fatalities no matter how they’re caused,” he said. “The emphasis needs to be on safety for motorists, but also the safety of the worker.”

Yeager Skanska, a Skanska Civil USA company based in Southern California, has an extensive safety program that requires daily meetings with project foremen and subcontractors as well as a rigid safety checklist. The company is ranked as one of the nation’s top highway contractors.

Chuck Black, director of health and safety for Yeager Skanska, said his company’s safety policy is constantly being improved to better protect workers. He said the main problem with safety at Yeager Skanska and many other companies is making sure everyone is following the program – something that requires better communication at the jobsite.

“I think it’s [the safety program] adequate, but do I think it can be improved — absolutely,” he said. “You need to have good communication behind it.”

Black said the majority of fatal accidents at jobsites occur because of employee error. By relaxing often-arduous time schedules, many deaths and injuries could be avoided, he said.

Liz Neblett, spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said a rising number of accidents in and around road construction sites – more than 50,000 injuries every year – are prompting state and federal government action.

“Work zone safety is a growing, significant concern [for the NHTSA],” Neblett said.

Worker fatalities at road construction sites have fluctuated, staying in the low 100s since 1998, according to the BLS report. Fatal occupational injuries peaked at 124 in 1999, though the BLS has only been categorizing the deaths since 1995.

The report also revealed workplace fatalities that occur in road construction typically account for 1.5 percent to 2 percent of all workplace fatalities annually.

Texas is the largest contributor to this percentage.The state, with 301,796 miles of roads crisscrossing its borders, is the largest continual contiguous state in the nation. It also contains the largest number of worker fatalities (71) at road construction sites from 1995 to 2002.

Mark Cross, information specialist for the Texas Department of Transportation, said the state’s large number of roadways lends to its top fatality ranking. Despite this, he said the state’s DOT blankets road construction sites with a number of safety measures and precautions.

“We are following the highest level of safety that we can,” Cross said.

Private contractors outnumber government workers on Texas roadways, and therefore have the greater number of fatal injuries at construction sites. According to the BLS report, private industry accounted for 688 of the 844 fatalities.

“They [private industry] are held to the same standards we are,” Cross said.

The Texas DOT is currently working with the Texas Transportation Institute, formed by a partnership with the engineering department of Texas A&M University, to develop solutions to safety-related problems.

The FHWA is producing similar projects. The agency’s ” Work Zone Safety and Mobility Final Rule,” which was produced Sept. 9, 2004, with an effective date of Oct. 12, 2007, addresses the changing conditions of more traffic, more congestion, greater safety issues and more work zones on the nation’s roads.

The FHWA rule seeks to improve “overall flexibility, scalability and adaptability” of provisions to customize application of regulations to better suit individual transportation agencies and road construction projects.

Other road construction safety initiatives are being taken by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse, created in 1998 to improve safety in highway work zones.

ARTBA spokesman Jeanneret said the future – with its increasing number of cars, drivers and subsequent work zones – will bring a bigger challenge to reduce danger to road construction workers. He said it’s obviously a big issue for all stakeholders, from equipment manufacturers to the driving public.

“We’re doing our part to improve safety for the worker,” he said.

Patrick Beeson can be contacted at [email protected].