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Work Zone Intrusion Leaves Six Workers Dead, Shows Almost Is Not Good Enough

Six roadway workers were killed in a single crash along a busy highway near Baltimore, Maryland, when two cars collided and one vehicle was forced into a work zone. It’s one of the deadliest crashes we’ve ever seen in a work zone and led to national headlines.

“When the safety and health of workers is at stake, every decision matters,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “There’s no ‘pretty close’ when it comes to safety on the job. Almost safe means something needs to be corrected immediately before someone gets hurt or killed.”

LIUNA General President
Terry O’Sullivan

Every work zone intrusion is different in some way – the road conditions, how the work zone is set up, driver behavior and other factors all play a role. And yet taking a look at this incident in more detail shows many of the same problems that the LHSFNA and other roadway safety advocates have been calling out for years.

Missing or Ineffective Positive Protection

Video of the incident shows that temporary concrete barriers were in place to separate highway traffic from the work zone. These barriers are a form of positive protection and are designed to deflect cars away from the work zone and protect drivers when incidents do occur. Unfortunately, in this incident, there was a large gap in the concrete barrier, which allowed the intruding car to enter the work zone.

The video also shows a large construction vehicle nearby, slightly upstream of where workers were positioned. Similar to truck-mounted attenuators (TMAs), vehicles like these are often used to shadow workers and provide another barrier between an intruding car and workers on foot. In this incident, the construction vehicle was too far away to provide cover during the intrusion.

Until a complete investigation by Maryland DOT and OSHA is finished, we’ll be left with many unanswered questions. Was the gap in the concrete barrier there temporarily as a construction vehicle access area? Was the construction vehicle on site to act as a TMA? If so, why wasn’t it positioned in front of the gap in the concrete barrier? What was the plan for protecting workers in that gap area? It’s hard to understand a safety plan that includes those workers being allowed there, adjacent to a highway full of speeding cars with no protection.

Based on the comments following the crash, it’s clear at least one worker didn’t feel safe on this site. “The thing I can’t get over is she was terrified of that jobsite,” said George Durm, the husband of Sybil Dimaggio, one of the workers killed in this incident.

Unsafe Speeds and Driver Behavior

Image courtesy of LIUNA Local 1611

The video also shows a white car speeding down the highway much faster than the rest of traffic. It appears that excessive speed doesn’t give either driver enough time to react safely when the second car changes lanes, causing the collision that led to the intrusion.

Every year, National Work Zone Awareness Week – held this year April 17-21 – asks drivers to slow down, put down the distractions and watch for workers in highway work zones. Unsafe speeds, combined with distracted driving or impairment, are a factor in a significant number of work zone intrusions.

The LHSFNA and industry partners such as the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) and the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA) support reducing driver speed through work zones. It’s fairly standard to see a reduction of 10 mph (e.g., from 65 mph to 55 mph) in work zones, but the Fund advocates for a 45 mph limit when workers are present. Speeds can be reduced in several ways: through signage, advanced warning, police presence and automated enforcement.

A work zone study conducted by the New York State Laborers’ Health & Safety Trust Fund found that 20 percent of cars traveled through work zones going 10-20 mph above the speed limit, with many cars topping 80-90 mph. That data helped get work zone speed camera legislation passed in New York state. Other states are following suit, most recently in Washington state, where SB 5272 will authorize the use of speed cameras in highway work zones.

Creating Safe Work Zones for Highway Workers

We’ve previously covered how one of the challenges around work zone safety is getting states to require enough funding for effective safety measures in the bidding process and expanding reimbursement for the use of positive protection. What makes this particular incident even more tragic is that positive protection was present on this site, yet it appears that it simply wasn’t deployed correctly. It seems at least some pre-planning steps had been taken to protect workers’ safety, and yet through some combination of poor management decisions or human error, six workers lost their lives.

With all the potential hazards in work zones, there is very little room for error. Construction contractors, especially those operating on highway jobs, must have the attitude that there is safe and then there is everything else. We can’t afford any in between when it comes to protecting the lives of workers.

[Nick Fox]

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