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For Knife River, Safety is Top of Mind

For Knife River, Safety is Top of Mind

By: Garrett Andrews in Construction May 6, 2016 12:00 pm
This column originally appeared in the Daily Journal of Commerce

Brian Gray, Knife River Northwest Region President. Photo provided by Sam Tenney, DJC
Brian Gray, Knife River Northwest Region President. Photo provided by Sam Tenney, DJC

Brian Gray is the northwest region president of Knife River, which has sought engineered solutions to keeping workers safe on the job.

Greg Priest was a Knife River Corp. traffic control supervisor. He was killed by a drunk driver the night of July 2, 2012, as he prepared a lane closure ahead of his evening shift near Canby. He was 47.

Priest’s boss, Knife River Northwest Region President Brian Gray, remembers that night well: the phone call. The shocked crewmen arriving for work. Priest’s company truck parked just as he left it that morning. None of Priest’s crew had felt comfortable getting into the vehicle, so Gray drove it to the nearest Knife River facility, 45 minutes away.

He remembers that drive well, especially the sight of Priest’s 6-year-old son, Mason, whose picture was wedged by the speedometer.

Priest “took that memory of Mason to work with him every day,” Gray said. “He did what he did safely every day so he could go home at night for his kids.”

Oregon OSHA and Oregon Department of Transportation investigations cleared Knife River of any liability in the accident, Gray said.

How did this happen? Why did it happen? Gray said that Knife River at that time had a good philosophy on safety – that all injuries and accidents can be prevented. But the company did a lot of soul-searching, he added, and closed the project for seven days.

“I don’t know that there was anything that Greg could have done differently to avoid it,” he said.

Less than a year later, Gray got another phone call, this time to inform him that traffic control supervisor KC Wilson was killed at a paving project site on Interstate 5 south of Roseburg.

The driver of a semitrailer had drifted from his lane and struck a Knife River truck and the small trailer and message board it was towing, sending the message board over the guardrail and onto Wilson’s head.

Wilson was wearing her hard hat and reflective vest, and working in a prescribed manner in a prescribed place, according to Gray.

“It was an accident that shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “She could have been standing one foot in any direction and that sign would have missed her. It would have been a close call, but in this case, it wasn’t.”

After enduring a similar loss so recently, the company was at least better prepared to deal with the aftermath.

Alarmingly, ODOT reports that between 2010 and 2014, an average of 477 construction zone crashes and around seven fatalities occurred annually, though the numbers fluctuate quite a bit.

ODOT spokesman Jared Castle said that with so many fatalities, people often overlook the construction workers who are injured. Between 2010 and 2014, each year an average of 13 “serious injury” crashes occurred in construction work zones.

“With construction workers, the type of crashes they’re involved in, they often can’t do the work they used to do,” he said. “People focus on the deaths, not on the guy whose hips are crushed between two cars.”

ODOT has ramped up public outreach on safety this month, ahead of the summer construction season. Knife River has worked to develop “engineered solutions,” like physical barriers, to protect workers from dangerous drivers. The firm also is diligent to ensure safety “inside its gates,” according to Gray. But employees’ safety often is in the public’s hands.

One of the most effective tools against unsafe driving is law enforcement, Gray said. People tend to respect the flashing red and blue lights of police more than the orange lights of construction vehicles, he said, adding that Knife River would support legislative efforts to increase law enforcement presence in work zones.

“The families (of Priest and Wilson) have told us, ‘Anything you can do to make the industry safer, do it.’ ” he said.

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