Every road construction project comes with its own set of challenges, risks and opportunities that must be carefully assessed before excavation can begin. This process of hazard identification and mitigation is not only crucial for keeping the project on budget, it’s also an essential part of any workplace safety plan. Between 2003 and 2017, roughly 1,844 workers lost their lives at road construction sites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, averaging 123 deaths per year. While the causes vary, it’s clear that highway, street and road paving contractors face some truly dangerous working conditions that can be difficult to manage.
To offset the threat of on-the-job accidents and major disruptions to road construction workflows, contractors perform detailed risk analyses that cover everything from local traffic and weather conditions to possible equipment malfunctions. As noted by the Federal Highway Administration, aging highway infrastructure has forced transportation agencies to perform work on roadways that are open to traffic, often during peak travel times or after nightfall. This trend has only increased the need for proactive risk management and robust safety measures that protect construction workers from avoidable injuries. But which specific hazards pose the greatest threat to road paving and construction professionals?
Risk Identification: Top Causes of Road Construction Injuries
The first step to conducting a thorough risk assessment is to identify specific hazards that could threaten the health and safety of road contractors. While each worksite has its own topography, climate concerns and traffic patterns, road construction businesses can learn a lot from injury statistics released by government agencies. According to the most recent data published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, common causes of road construction work zone injuries include:
- Contact with equipment, objects or heavy machinery (35%)
- Slips, trips and falls (20%)
- Overexertion and/or fatigue (15%)
- Transportation incidents (12%)
- Exposure to hazardous substances and/or environments (5%)
Undoubtedly, the most dangerous hazards highway, street and road contractors contend with are vehicles, whether operated by pedestrians or coworkers. Between 2011 and 2015, roughly 76% of fatal roadway work zone injuries were caused by transportation accidents. As such, road construction risk assessment plans should include provisions for managing temporary traffic controls, maximizing worker visibility and enhancing worksite awareness. Once the risk analysis is completed, project managers must then create actionable safety policies that are fleshed out in extraordinary detail.
Risk Management: Best Practices in Work Zone Safety
As part of its ongoing efforts to improve worksite safety for road contractors, the NIOSH created a detailed guide on injury prevention that outlines key risk management practices every road construction business should follow. Here’s a quick overview of some of the most impactful recommendations:
Managing work zone layouts
When planning a road construction or road paving project, contractors should always assign a dedicated supervisor who understands key traffic control principles. All work zone setup and changes should also be carefully documented throughout the course of the project. In high-traffic areas, road contractors should establish at least some buffer between workers and passing motorists to reduce the risk of struck-by injuries.
Implementing temporary traffic control devices
Work zones located on busy streets or intersections should use signage, warning devices and concrete barriers whenever possible. These safety systems should be installed prior to road construction and, if feasible, provide an estimated time of delay. In somes cases, traffic queue detection equipment may be necessary to inform motorists about shifting traffic conditions and construction workflows. Most of all, all warning signs should be written in clear, easy-to-understand language and removed when workers are no longer present.
Prioritizing high-visibility clothing
Alongside traffic control systems, road contractors and other on-site personnel should wear high-visibility apparel at all times. This clothing must be inspected regularly to ensure the color and reflective properties have not been faded due to prolonged use. The NIOSH also recommends utilizing “seasonal variations” in color to maximize visibility and prevent workers from blending into the surrounding landscape.
Maintaining road construction and safety equipment
To help offset the risk of equipment failure, road contractors should perform pre-shift inspections on all devices, vehicles and safety tools. If onsite maintenance or repairs are required, the equipment should first be made inoperable to prevent possible accidents. All repair work must be completed by a trained professional and carefully documented for future reference.
While this is by no means a comprehensive list of best practices for work zone risk control, it can serve as a jumping-off point for highway, street and road contractors looking to improve their safety practices. For a more comprehensive overview of road paving and construction hazards, be sure to reference the CDC’s industry resources.