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A New Era in Protecting Workers in Moving Road Vehicles

A recent ruling from a little-known agency may have big implications on the future of highway construction projects. In December, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC), which hears and rules on OSHA citations contested by employers, upheld two “serious” violations issued to RoadSafe Traffic Systems for failing to provide adequate fall protection for workers in a moving vehicle.

LIUNA General
and LHSFNA Labor
Armand E. Sabitoni

In the events leading up to the incident, a crew of four workers were operating multiple pickup trucks to replace damaged reflectors along a roadway. One worker sat in the bed of the lead truck with both feet on the lift gate and held onto the lift gate chain. During installation, a driver fell behind the lead truck, accelerated to catch up and rear-ended the lead vehicle, striking and killing the worker in the truck bed.

“Danger from passing motorists is only one of many hazards that LIUNA members and other construction workers face on highway construction projects,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Taking steps to eliminate or reduce risk from falls during marking operations allows road workers to do their job safely while keeping traffic flowing smoothly.”

The OSHRC – an independent federal agency separate from OSHA and the Department of Labor – upheld the two violations issued by OSHA. The OSHRC ruled that working from the back of a vehicle is a recognized hazard in the road construction industry that should have led the employer to provide workers with feasible fall protection.

Shift in How Employers Should Approach Marking Roadways

This ruling is significant because the type of work and practices described above are extremely common in the industry today. Construction contractors tasked with deploying and picking up cones and other roadway markers often accomplish that by putting workers in the back of pickup trucks and driving down the roadway. With this ruling by the OSHRC, there’s now precedent that continuing this practice could bring an OSHA citation.

Image courtesy of LuAnn Theiss, Texas A&M Transportation Institute

The precedent this ruling sets is even more significant because the citations were issued under the general duty clause. We’ve covered in past Lifelines articles how general duty clause citations can be thrown out upon court review if they don’t meet all the required criteria. In this case, the OSHRC upheld the violations in part by referencing ANSI/ASSP’s A10.47, Work Zone Safety for Roadway Construction. The ANSI/ASSP series of standards are consensus standards developed by both labor and industry stakeholders, which ensures their policies and procedures are widely known and feasible. The LHSFNA’s OSH Division is heavily involved in the ANSI A10 standards development process, and chairs the A10.47 subgroup as well as numerous other A10 construction and demolition standards.

What does A10.47 have to say about hazards for workers in moving road vehicles? “[E]mployees placing traffic cones, barrels and other channeling devices onto the roadway from the back or side of a moving vehicle shall be protected by perimeter protection or a fall restraint system.”

This type of language can also be found in another important set of documents – RoadSafe’s own safety program. The OSHRC found that the company’s Job Safety Analyses (JSAs) for installing reflectors lists falls as a known hazard. Company policy actually prohibits workers from riding in the back of trucks for exactly this reason. Glenn Thompson, RoadSafe’s Chief Operating Officer, stated that doing so “subjects an employee to risks from either … falling out of a vehicle, or if the vehicle’s involved in a motor vehicle accident, people would be ejected from the back of a vehicle. It’s considered to be dangerous and risky, because you never know what the motorist is going to do.”

A safety and health program isn’t worth much if it’s not being followed. Unfortunately, this clear-cut case of a company not practicing or enforcing its own safety and health policies cost a worker their life.

Protecting Workers During Construction, Repair and Marking Operations

The best option to protect workers installing reflectors and deploying or retrieving cones may be to use a specialized trailer built specifically for this task. These trailers often place workers in a basket or similar area that provides fall protection and separates workers from passing motorists.

Image courtesy of LuAnn Theiss, Texas A&M Transportation Institute

Devices like these are also a better option than having workers ride in the cab of a work truck and install reflectors on foot. That practice eliminates the fall hazard by keeping workers from riding in the truck bed but replaces one hazard with another, as workers on foot are exposed to traffic and can be struck by a passing vehicle.

It’s time for the road construction industry to embrace existing methods to mitigate this recognized hazard and develop new solutions. Employers that continue to put workers in the bed of pickup trucks risk not only the safety of their workforce – they risk an OSHA citation.

For more information on protecting workers on road construction projects, visit the Fund’s Work Zone Safety page or order our work zone safety publications.

[Nick Fox]

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