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Understanding the Difference Between Flaggers and Spotters

Flaggers and spotters are often mistakenly identified as performing the same tasks, but that’s not the case. While both are essential to the safety of workers inside highway work zones, their job responsibilities are very different. Understanding what differentiates these tasks and only assigning them to workers who have been trained helps ensure the safety of flaggers and spotters as well as their fellow workers inside work zones.

  • Flaggers protect workers by providing temporary traffic control (TTC) and maintaining traffic flow through a work zone, despite a shutdown of lanes. They are often the first line of defense to stop motorists from accidentally driving into the work area.
  • In highway work zones, the main responsibility of the spotter is to protect workers by directing heavy construction machinery inside the work zone. Spotters keep equipment operators with obstructed views from backing over or running over workers they can’t see. Spotters are also used when working in rough terrain areas, when performing blind lifts and when working around overhead power lines.

“Nothing is more important in highway construction than ensuring the safety of the workers and the traveling public,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “The jobs performed by flaggers and spotters are a critical part of maintaining safety in highway work zones. While these tasks can be dangerous, proper planning, training and worksite setup can greatly reduce these risks.”

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni

Flaggers and spotters were among the 143 workers killed in highway work zones in 2016 and the more than 20,000 workers who were injured. As in previous years, the leading cause of these injuries and fatalities involved contact with vehicles, objects or construction equipment. These types of injuries and deaths can often be prevented through a combination of training and protection.

What Does It Take to Be a Flagger?

Flagging may look like a simple job, but providing TTC requires experience and specific training. Flaggers need to learn signaling procedures, how TTC devices work and when to use them. They also need to know what class of protective clothing to wear so they can be easily seen by approaching traffic.

Work zones are fluid environments and flaggers must have the skills to assess whether TTC that kept traffic flowing safely at the beginning of a shift needs to be adjusted as the day progresses. For example, a day that turns rainy can create slippery road surfaces and affect visibility, making it difficult for drivers to see lane changes, construction vehicles entering and exiting the work zone and have enough time to slow down. Rainy weather can also make it harder for drivers to see the flagger.

What Can Employers Do?

Employers should make sure flaggers are trained under the guidance of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). Published by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the MUTCD is a compilation of national standards for all traffic control devices, road markings, highway signs and traffic signals, including those that are temporary.

Employers should require flaggers to:

  • Use the MUTCD’s recommended hand signals and devices for directing motorists, including STOP/SLOW paddles, red flags and lights.
  • Wear the appropriate class of high-visibility safety apparel.
  • Be stationed far enough ahead of the work zone to allow sufficient time for approaching traffic to slow or stop before entering the work area and to warn workers of approaching danger, such as an out-of-control vehicle.
  • Be trained by someone with the qualifications to effectively instruct the employee in the proper fundamentals of flagging, which includes the following:
    • Specific flagger equipment which must be used
    • The layout of the work zone, flagging station and worksite conditions
    • How to respond to emergency vehicles traveling through the work zone
    • How to handle emergency situations
    • Methods for dealing with hostile drivers

What Does It Take to Be a Spotter?

While there isn’t official guidance for training spotters, that doesn’t mean training isn’t important. Blind spots in dump trucks and other large construction vehicles make it difficult for equipment operators to see workers on foot, especially when backing up. In 2016 alone, backing construction equipment killed 24 construction workers and injured 50 others. Spotters can help prevent backovers and other incidents that often lead to injury and death, including runovers, vehicle collisions and caught-in-betweens, but they need to know how to stay safe when doing this work.

What Can Employers Do?

OSHA doesn’t have a spotter standard, but employers can implement these recommendations to help keep spotters safe:

  • Position spotters to have a clear view of the area that the operator/driver cannot see without being in harm’s way.
  • Ensure spotters and drivers agree on hand signals.
  • Instruct spotters to always maintain visual contact with the driver while the vehicle is backing.
  • Instruct drivers to stop backing immediately if they lose sight of the spotter.
  • Instruct spotters not to use cell phones or other items that could cause a distraction.
  • Provide spotters with high-visibility clothing.
  • Never give spotters additional duties while they are acting as spotters.

LIUNA signatory contractors and affiliates can order the Fund’s new Flagger Safety and Spotter Safety toolbox talks for more information on how to protect the workers who perform these important jobs. These and other health and safety materials can be ordered by going to and clicking on Publications. The LHSFNA’s OSH Division can provide additional guidance. For more information, call 202-628-5465.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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