Three Ways IIJA Aims to Amp Up Work Zone Safety
On average, about 135 roadway workers are killed on the job annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “In the heavy civil construction sector, struck-bys are both the number one cause of fatalities and non-fatal injuries,” said Bradley Sant, senior vice president of safety and education at the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA).
Sant said the number of fatalities in work zones has been increasing for years, even when normalized against increased road work, based on the total number of road construction workers in place and the dollar value of road construction projects. “What does that mean when we see a huge jump in funding? Unless we do something to change that [fatality] rate, we could see some real causes for concern.”
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) delivers a 44% increase in core federal highway funding between FY 2021 and FY 2022. Beginning in 2023, ARTBA estimates the IIJA funding will result in at least 4,000 additional work sites annually.
“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of work going on over the next eight to 10 years,” said Scott Earnest, associate director for construction safety and health at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), during a recent webinar. “It’s important when this work is done that it’s done safely.”
Fortunately, Sant outlined a number of provisions in the IIJA that deal specifically with struck-bys. This includes funding for the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), including for automated speed enforcement in work zones; the creation of safety contingency funds; and the requirement of safety benchmarks for vulnerable road users, which includes roadway construction workers.
Automated Speed Enforcement
“The HSIP is traditionally aimed at infrastructure improvements that make roads safer for motorists,” Sant said. However, he added, some of that funding is now available for automated speed enforcement in work zones.
“While automated speed enforcement is not a new program, there are only a couple states that have made a lot of use of it over the years,” Sant said, spotlighting Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania, with other states more recently adopting the practice.
For example, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is deploying automated speed enforcement on some long-term projects this summer, said Marchel Johnson, assistant director of safety, security and emergency management at VDOT. The Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) is also piloting the use of automated speed enforcement in work zones this summer. Any motorist going 15 mph over the posted speed limit in a work zone will receive a warning for the first violation, a $75 fine for the second violation, and a $150 fine for the third violation, with tickets mailed directly to the vehicle owner’s home.
“The two most frequent causes of work zone safety accidents are speeding and distracted driving,” said David Ferraro, a survivor of a work zone struck-by incident with CTDOT. In a recent work zone Ferraro was in, the average speed of the traveling public was 68 mph in a 40 mph zone. Although CTDOT has implemented double fines, radar speed displays, and state police for speed enforcement on interstate projects, Ferraro said the traveling public still gets complacent. CTDOT is hoping to see longer lasting effects through the use of automated speed enforcement.
“While we may not like this automated speed enforcement as a driver, we know it is an effective tool,” Sant said, adding that excessive vehicle speed and speed variability are primary factors contributing to work zone crashes. “By getting people to obey posted speed limits, we see [automated speed enforcement] as a great mitigation tool for those actions.”
“Throughout the IIJA, there are a lot of dedicated resources going to vulnerable road users,” Sant said. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines roadway construction workers as pedestrians, and pedestrians are considered vulnerable road users (VRUs). “We’re seeing fatalities among VRUs increasing at grave rates, even as other areas of crash fatalities are going down.”
“When people think about VRUs, they usually think about pedestrians, bicyclists, or people with disabilities on personal conveyance,” Sant said. “But, by definition, those VRUs include workers. We want to make sure they are not forgotten as we talk about VRUs.”
Sant said the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is developing guidance documents for the states regarding how to improve safety for VRUs. For example, implementing a safety system approach to build and reinforce “multiple layers of protection to both prevent crashes from happening in the first place and minimize the harm caused to those involved when crashes do occur,” writes the DOT.
“We’re seeing greater emphasis put on dramatic uptick in consideration of separating workers from motorists, and seeing greater emphasis put on this from the FHWA,” said Laura Huizinga, technical sales manager at Lindsay Transportation. To do so, she’s seen many states allow full roadway or full travel bound closures. “What better way to keep motorists and workers separate than to close the road?” However, Huizinga recognizes this isn’t possible in all cases. That’s where positive protection can be used.
“Designers, planners and engineers are getting very adept at choosing the best positive protection option, depending on speeds, deflection and where they’re being put into place,” Huizinga said. She said static barriers – whether of steel, concrete, or water-filled – are a good option if it’s feasible to do so, but added that these are most often used only for long-duration lane closures.
When it’s not possible to close off the work zone with static barriers, Huizinga said it’s common for designers to gravitate toward channelizing devices to delineate lane closures. “These devices are great at providing motorists with guidance past the work zone, but don’t offer any intrusion protection whatsoever,” she said.
For work zones where static barriers aren’t feasible, she recommends moveable and mobile barriers. “These provide positive protection for the motoring public and workers, while maintaining mobility by being able to keep those lanes open during peak traffic hours.”
Ferraro said CTDOT uses Lindsay’s barrier system on some of its jobs. “Although they’ve been struck a bunch of times, they’ve definitely reduced injuries and fatalities,” he said. “As owners, we need to realize that cones and drums can only do so much. The only way to keep workers and the traveling public safe is to use positive protection.”
Huizinga said the best way to encourage positive protection is for these measures to be included in the safety policies and standards to which the state adheres and to provide appropriate funding to implement them on job sites. The IIJA can also help in this regard.
“Road construction is typically a low-bid environment,” Sant said, “so, it’s always been a concern what we do with folks who are trying to do a better job and may be undercut by those not as concerned with safety out there.”
“Maybe the plan calls for drums and cones, but when we get out there, we realize positive separation may be needed,” Sant said. “In the past, making such a change was difficult because it required getting new money.” What the IIJA did was allow states to create a safety contingency fund to be used for additional temporary traffic control to protect motorists and workers.
“Then, if you come up on these unanticipated safety problems, there’s money to fix that,” Sant said. “We’re very excited about that provision, which can allow for more positive protection between workers and motorists.”
Increased Work, Reduced Fatalities: A Case Study
In 2020, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) was able to complete 2,000 more projects than in 2019 while reducing fatalities from 17 to 11, said Marchel Johnson, assistant director of safety, security and emergency management at VDOT.
They’ve implemented a number of measures to increase work zone safety. This includes creating its own supplement to chapter six of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), safety training for anyone working in road work zones, and devices like rumble strips, improved lighting, smart work zone devices and programmable message boards.
They’ve also made some changes to required personal protective equipment (PPE). Its state forces are now required to wear KASK helmets instead of traditional hard hats to provide better protection from side, frontal and back impact. They now allow high-visibility leg gaiters or Class E trousers for installing, maintaining and removing traffic control devices, with Class E trousers being mandatory for nighttime flagging operations. “We’ve seen more workers wearing leg gaiters, both among our state forces and our contractor partners, in the work zone at all times,” Johnson said.
A Close Call in Connecticut
David Ferraro was working on the southbound lanes of I-95 in Greenwich, Connecticut, just a few miles from the border with New York State on Nov. 16, 1995, when he was struck by a drunk driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel.
It was the beginning of the night paving shift, when the crew was standing behind the paver going over final details and waiting for the first load of mix. Two of the three lanes—the right and center lanes—were closed to traffic, with the paver and crew in the right lane. When a fellow inspector pulled into the closed center lane to speak with Ferraro and a coworker, they walked over to the pickup truck with their backs to traffic in the open left lane. A few moments later, the drunk driver crashed into the pickup truck, bounced back into the active lane of traffic, and sped off into New York where he was later caught by Connecticut police.
“I was dazed at the time and didn’t even realize I’d been struck,” Ferraro said. Before the driver hit Ferraro and the pickup truck, they had hit several cones and sent them flying in all directions, hitting Ferraro and his coworkers. “I thought I was only hit by cones until a state police officer noticed my jeans were ripped and had gray paint on them from the car.”
“If the collision point had been a few inches different, both me and my coworker next to me would have been crushed between the vehicles,” Ferraro said. “If the driver didn’t crash into the truck and bounce back into the active lane, he would have crashed into the back of the paver and seriously hurt or killed six highway workers standing there.”
- FHWA Work Zone Management website (ops.fhwa.dot.gov/wz/)
- National Work Zone Awareness Week website (ops.fhwa.dot.gov/wz/outreach/wz-awareness.htm)
- National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse website (workzonesafety.org)