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Industry groups say they’ve been unsuccessfully pushing for worker safety provisions for years.
After a work-zone crash killed six construction workers in Baltimore last week, Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt expressed his condolences on Twitter. The newly installed highway chief also invoked the Biden administration’s goal of eliminating road fatalities. “Zero deaths,” Bhatt wrote, “includes work zones.”
But too often, construction industry officials say, protecting workers in construction zones has languished as a major priority for the federal government. For two decades, industry and labor unions have unsuccessfully pushed the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to explicitly instruct states on when to require heightened safety measures in work zones.
Bradley Sant, senior vice president of safety and education for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), said the road builders and other advocacy groups also have been “pounding” federal officials about worker safety.
Construction workers are often classified as “pedestrians” in federal road fatality data, which makes it difficult for the public to see how big the problem is, Sant explained. A 2018 industry study, though, found that 39% of pedestrians killed in work zones were construction workers.
“The piece that often gets overlooked … is that if you’re trying to get a reduction in pedestrian fatalities, you’ve got to consider that workers are classified as pedestrians, and you’re never going to get those numbers down if you categorically ignore the worker pedestrian problem,” Sant said.
Overall, work zone fatalities have been climbing for the last decade, ARTBA noted in a recent comment letter. Federal data shows that the number of people who have died in work zones increased from 586 in 2010 to 857 in 2020.
There are several steps the FHWA could take to improve worker safety, Sant said.
One of the most important, he said, would be to make clear when states should require “positive separation” elements in work zones that—unlike the standard setup of barrels and cones—prevent vehicles from entering areas where construction workers are doing their jobs.
Congress first asked the Department of Transportation to study those requirements in a 1998 funding law. Lawmakers stepped up the pressure in 2012 and 2015 laws, but FHWA has not fully carried out those instructions, according to Sant.
An FHWA official said the agency is “actively involved” in updating the regulations, and it anticipates releasing a proposed rule “in the coming months.”
“These workers, like other pedestrians, are considered vulnerable road users. FHWA has been working to make construction areas and those who work in them safer for decades,” the official said.
The current federal regulations say that positive separation devices and other safety precautions “should be used to the extent that they are possible, practical, and adequate to manage work zone exposure and reduce the risks of crashes resulting in fatalities or injuries to workers and road users.”
But Congress told the Transportation Department that positive separation should be required in cases when workers have no way to escape, or in long-term projects where workers will be operating within one lane width of fast-moving vehicles. The laws allow for exceptions if the agency in charge of the road building project conducts a study to show the extra protections aren’t needed.
“To us it’s felt more like [the Transportation Department] is trying to find reasons not to do it than trying to find reasons to do it, so that’s been a source of frustration,” Sant said. “I think their heart is in the right place. I don’t think they’re in opposition to it. But what I do think is that it’s not top of mind.”
Mandates for positive protection should be even easier and cheaper to comply with now, because the number of technologies that road builders can use to stop wayward vehicles has increased in the years since Congress passed those regulations, Sant noted.
The most common type of positive protection is concrete jersey barriers, but their weight makes them hard to install and to move during the course of a project. Now, though, construction companies can use mobile steel barriers, zipper-style concrete barriers that can be moved easily and impact-absorbing barriers attached to trailers.
Some states, including California, have passed their own rules to require more use of positive protection, Sant said, although it’s too soon to determine how much of an effect that has had on worker safety.
Meanwhile, the 2021 federal infrastructure law also contains provisions that could help states improve safety for those construction workers. One such provision, for example, allows states to use federal money to buy and operate speed cameras. A handful of states including Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania already use them.
Another provision allows states to set up contingency funds for safety improvements on projects. If a project requires more worker protections than the contractor originally anticipated, the state could use money from the contingency fund to pay for the additional safety features without having to rebid the contract. Texas has used that approach for years, Sant said, and it has helped the state transportation department better anticipate what safety features will be needed for projects before they begin.
The Transportation Department specified in its January 2022 plan for improving roadway safety that “it is also essential that roadway construction and maintenance zones are safe for workers.”
FHWA works with groups like ARTBA to promote National Work Zone Awareness Week, and it distributes grants designed to improve construction worker safety, the agency official noted. One of the recent grants it awarded, in fact, is a multistate collaboration to study truck-mounted crash attenuators, and a dozen others are specifically designed to protect workers. The agency also handles more than $20 billion on programs that can improve worker safety.
Regardless of the approach, policymakers need to remember construction workers when they make plans for protecting vulnerable road users, Sant said.
“Whoever is coming up with these policies and practices, please don’t forget the workers,” he said. “It would be a tragedy if we try to make the road safer for all these other vulnerable users, but we sacrifice the lives and health of our workers as we do it.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
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