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Baltimore Bridge Collapse Highlights the Need for Increased Work Zone Safety Protections

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer Michael F. Sabitoni
LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer Michael F. Sabitoni

Six workers died this March when the Francis Scott Key bridge collapsed in Baltimore, Maryland, almost exactly a year after the fatal highway crash that killed six roadway workers in Baltimore last March. A massive cargo ship was traveling through the Baltimore port when it lost power and struck the Francis Scott Key bridge, causing part of the bridge to collapse into the Patapsco River.

Fortunately, the ship’s crew issued a mayday and police were able to close traffic to the bridge before it collapsed, saving an estimated dozens of lives. However, eight people were stranded on the bridge when it went down. All of them were part of a non-union construction crew repairing potholes, and six of them lost their lives that morning.

“As construction laborers and tradesmen and tradeswomen across the United States rebuild our infrastructure, we hope this tragedy draws attention to how important it is to implement strong work zone safety measures to protect all workers and the traveling public that use our highways every day,” said LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Trustee Michael F. Sabitoni.

In the health and safety world, experts hesitate to call any fatal workplace incident a “freak accident,” because most injuries and incidents can be prevented with proper planning and safety protocols. However, the Francis Scott Key bridge collapse was as close to a freak accident as it can get. While we may not have a safety shortcut or malpractice to blame at this time, this terrible tragedy is calling public attention to how dangerous highway work zones can be for workers at all times.

It’s well-established that highway work zones can be one of the most dangerous work environments in the construction industry, and the problem is getting worse. Since 2010, work zone deaths have increased 63 percent. Every year, hundreds of workers are killed or seriously injured in roadway work zones. In the first three months of 2024, we’ve already seen roadway worker deaths in six states.

LHSFNA Advocates for Stronger Work Zone Protections

Safety in highway work zones is a clear issue, and efforts to strengthen protections for workers are long overdue. Last year, the Fund’s Safety and Health Specialist Ryan Papariello used his role on the OSHA Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) to urge OSHA to initiate rulemaking that would require employers to adopt stronger safeguards protecting workers on roadway construction sites. Since then, not much has changed in terms of legislation. Yet highway work zones are as dangerous as ever and workers are still putting their lives at risk to repair our infrastructure and keep our country moving.

In February, ACCSH convened another meeting and Papariello again called attention to work zone safety. During the meeting, he proposed that OSHA consider implementing a National Emphasis Program (NEP) on work zone safety. The motion was adopted with 13 yes votes, one no vote and one abstention.

NEPs are temporary programs that focus OSHA’s resources on particular hazards and high-hazard industries, and they’re historically effective in reducing fatalities and injuries. Launching an NEP shows that federal OSHA recognizes more needs to be done to protect workers from a particular hazard and serves to increase efforts until a permanent standard can be put in place.

OSHA looks at a variety of occupational injury and illness data to determine which hazards are particularly dangerous and require extra attention. For instance, following an increase in heat-related illness and deaths among workers in recent years, OSHA issued an NEP on heat illness in April 2022 to expand initiatives that protect workers from extreme heat. Papariello and other safety experts believe that implementing an NEP on work zone safety could help reduce avoidable worker injuries and fatalities.

“National emphasis programs take a multi-pronged approach to particular hazards and high-hazard industries, including injury and illness data, peer-reviewed studies and inspection findings,” said Papariello. “When it comes to construction work zones, injuries and fatalities are on the rise and as ACCSH members, we have a responsibility to be proactive and push for necessary changes so workers return home safely every day.”

Next Steps and Moving Forward

While there’s nothing positive about workers losing their lives, tragedy can trigger change. For example, following the aforementioned Baltimore crash, the office of Maryland Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller convened a Work Zone Safety Work Group tasked with recommending actions the state can take to improve work zone safety. One recommendation was to increase Maryland’s citation for work zone speed violations, which is currently the lowest in the nation at $40.

It will likely be some time before we see any new federal standards on work zone safety. But that doesn’t mean contractors can’t be proactive and implement stronger safeguards on the job in the meantime. As we always have, the LHSFNA urges employers to go beyond the bare minimum to protect their workers. There’s no reason for employers in construction to wait on federal OSHA or state programs to take action. Check out these Fund resources for more on work zone safety:

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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