Road Management & Engineering Journal
Road Management & Engineering Journal
Copyright © 1999 by TranSafety, Inc.
April 1999
TranSafety, Inc.
(360) 683-6276
Fax: (360) 335-6402

Managing Work Zone Safety
Editorial comments by Roy W. Anderson, P.E.

Originally published in the April 1986 TranSafety Reporter

(This article on work zone safety is reproduced from the April 1986 (Volume IV, No. 4) issue of the TranSafety Reporter, published and edited by Roy W. Anderson, P.E. To find legal summaries of cases related to highway work zones, please check on-line editions of "Road Injury Prevention and Litigation Journal" at this web site.)

Work zone safety is one of the most perplexing of road safety problems. We have known for at least two decades how to make significant improvements in work zone safety for motorists, workers, and pedestrians, yet such life-saving knowledge is constantly ignored by government agencies, contractors and utility companies. Only now, the increasing cost of liability insurance, when it can be obtained, has brought new recognition of the hazards in work zones on our highways.

In the mid sixties, the California Division of Highways became concerned about the substantial rise in fatal and injury accidents in work zones. They set about identifying causes and ways to alleviate the problem. Their statistical studies showed that work zones did not have to be so hazardous. "Detour Ahead," published under a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) grant in 1972, was virtually ignored by the rest of the nation until the mid 1970's.

An accident investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board of the fiery death of a mother and her two babies in a work zone on the Beltway around Washington, D.C. focused attention on the failure of not only the Virginia highway department, but of the FHWA as well. A lawsuit by the Center for Auto Safety won injunctive relief from a federal court. The FHWA Office of Safety subsequently launched a major effort to improve work zone safety. As a result, some improvements were made but far short of what was needed. Over the past decade, numerous research projects have been completed, training courses created and, most importantly, changes were made in the "Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices" (MUTCD).

While the MUTCD and its companion, "Traffic Control Devices Handbook," contain substantial guidance, they are not "cookbooks" that provide all the answers to maintaining work zone safety. The most significant provisions in the MUTCD are the FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES. Compliance with these management principles would result in major improvements in work zone safety. Until these very basic principles are accepted and practiced by those responsible for work zones, no significant improvement will be achieved. These principles form the basis of a risk management program for work zones and will become a major element in future injury lawsuits as a framework for judging whether the defendant was negligent in providing for the safety of the public and workers.

The MUTCD stresses that work zones present to the motorist unexpected or unusual situations in traffic operations and special care must be taken "in applying traffic control techniques in these areas." The primary management principles include the following:

  1. Traffic safety in construction zones should be an integral and high priority element of every project from planning to design and to construction. Similarly, maintenance work should be planned and conducted with the safety of the motorist, pedestrian, and worker foremost at all times. The basic safety principles governing the design of permanent roadways and roadsides should also govern the design of work zones. The first principle also requires a traffic control plan be "prepared and understood by all responsible parties before the site is occupied." The MUTCD also requires that any changes to the traffic control plan be approved by an official "trained in safe traffic control practices."

  2. Traffic movement should be inhibited as little as is practical. This principle addresses such issues as minimizing the time construction and maintenance operations occupy the roadway, and making transitions as smooth as practicable with recognition that it is difficult to get motorists to reduce their speed unless a real need is perceived. Thus, zones designed for overly restrictive reductions in speeds may result in hazards for all individuals.

  3. Motorists should be guided in a clear and positive manner while approaching and traversing work areas. Traffic control devices to guide the motorist should be installed and old markings that are obsolete and could mislead the motorist should be removed.

  4. The fourth principle is extremely important. It provides for monitoring the traffic control plan and identifying and correcting problem areas. It emphasizes the need for reviewing and analyzing accident reports and using the expertise of the police. This principle requires that persons "trained in traffic control should be assigned responsibility for safety at work sites."

  5. The last principle addresses the need for constant attention to maintain roadside safety. This includes the safe storage of equipment, materials and debris.

Little progress will be made in safety improvements until training for all involved with work zones is provided. "Each person whose action affects maintenance and construction zone safety, from upper level management personnel through construction and maintenance field personnel, should receive training appropriate to the job decisions each individual is required to make". The management of all organizations responsible for work zone operations must be committed to this basic concept if the hazards of work zones are to be significantly reduced.

If organizations responsible for work zone safety do not find the necessary commitment from within their own organizations, many will find a financial incentive in costly lawsuits, where juries often find the road agencies negligent. The large number of paving and bridge building projects funded with billions of federal-aid dollars, and the increasing awareness of plaintiffs' lawyers to the abuses in work zones, will make work zone safety suits very popular on court dockets across the country.

Copyright © 1999 by TranSafety, Inc.

Back to Index       Top of Page