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What Does “Safe” Mean in a Work Zone?

This is the second in a series of articles on work zone safety provided by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Stay tuned for additional articles.

24.7When you ask an engineer, a project manager, a contractor, a trucking industry representative, and a law enforcement officer what “safe” means to them when it comes to work zones, you’d think they would all give different answers because they look at work zones from a different perspective. However, their answers are surprisingly similar in many ways. Despite their differences, they all share a vision of safety for workers and travelers.

In this second article in our series about taking a fresh look at work zone safety in Oregon, we’ll examine some of the commonalities and differences of thought surrounding highway work zones in our state.

Driver Behavior is a Top Concern

Everyone we talked to agreed that driver behavior is a top concern when it comes to work zone safety.

“We need people to be focused 100 percent on the task of driving, but that’s not always the case,” said Lt. James Rentz with Oregon State Police. “Our top concerns in a work zone are people driving too fast for conditions and distracted drivers.”

“If we could just get people to obey the posted speed signs, things would improve tremendously,” said ODOT Traffic Control Plans Standards Engineer Don Wence.

That concern is echoed by ODOT’s State Maintenance Engineer Luci Moore. “Our employees get hit when drivers are traveling through a work zone too fast or are not giving their full attention to their surroundings.”

The contracting community feels the same way. “Worker safety is our number one priority,” said Kerry Kuenzi with K & E Excavating, an Oregon based construction contractor. He went on to say that keeping drivers away from workers whenever possible is ideal.

“Barriers and crash trucks (truck-mounted impact attenuators) make a huge difference in the safety of our workers. Separating the workers from traffic is a big deal to us. Reduced speeds make a huge difference as well; even 10 mph slower makes a difference,” Kuenzi said.

“One of the most common concerns of our drivers is aggressive passenger vehicle drivers cutting off trucks in the approach to a work zone,” said Christopher Simons, vice president and general counsel with May Trucking, an Oregon-based firm with more than 600 professional drivers hauling freight across Oregon and the nation. “As traffic begins to approach the work zone, passenger car drivers will speed up and quickly change lanes to try to get in front of the slower moving truck.”

What many passenger car drivers don’t understand is that an 80,000-pound truck needs a lot more space to maneuver and by cutting off a truck, they increase the risk of a crash.

Human actions like impairment, distraction, and irresponsible choices are difficult to mitigate, however there are things that can be done to improve safety.

Engineering and Design Solutions Make a Difference

“There are seven fundamentals in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control that we follow when designing traffic control plans for a project,” said ODOT Traffic Control Plan Quality Assurance Engineer Justin King. (Traffic control plans include the design for the work zone.)

Those fundamentals include worker and traveler safety, mobility, clear and positive guidance through the work zone, regular inspections, maintaining the work zone throughout the project, quality training for workers, and effective public relations.

“Fortunately, ODOT has a variety of tools in our traffic control plan design toolbox, and we are continually seeking out new materials, devices, and practices to improve work zone safety,” said ODOT Traffic Control Plans Engineer Scott McCanna.

Those tools include devices and methods for reducing speeds, getting drivers’ attention, providing improved work zone information, and improving positive protection measures between travelers and the work area. In future articles we’ll take a look at some of the newest devices and techniques including radar speed feedback trailers, portable transverse rumble strips, and new ways to provide positive protection for workers.

Training is Vital

“We try to encourage consistency statewide in not just highway projects but city and county road construction projects as well,” King said. “We offer traffic control plan design classes, inspector training classes, worker training, and more.”

“Our drivers are professional, and they take their jobs seriously,” Simons said. “In our safety training we emphasize to always be aware of surroundings and maintain a safe following distance. These things become critical in a work zone.”

“Training is huge,” Kuenzi said. “We have a safety meeting at the beginning of every shift, and we send our staff to specialized training as well.”

Respect the ZoneConsistent Messages to the Public are Important

Just as consistent training is important for worker safety, consistent messages to the traveling public helps reinforce safe practices.

Signs before and within a work zone are one of the most important tools we have to alert drivers, reduce their speed, and guide them through the work area. Too many signs, poorly placed signs, and signs left out by mistake cause confusion for drivers and are a concern for several of the people we talked with.

“Construction zones are fluid and change depending on the type of project,” Lt. Rentz said. “There’s a lot going on. It’s a lot of visual stimulation, and it can be confusing for the public.”

“One of the suggestions that came from our drivers is to have traffic stay within a lane while in the construction zone (restrict lane changes), rather than allowing them to change lanes throughout the construction zone,” Simons said.

The “your speed is” radar speed trailers are growing in popularity for use within ODOT construction and maintenance work zones.

“The variable speed signs are great,” Kuenzi said.

“Regional maintenance managers are working with traffic engineers to use portable changeable message signs in maintenance work zones,” Moore said. Messages can be changed as fast as the work zone conditions change. Drivers are given relevant and updated information on the fly.

Currently ODOT reaches out to Oregonians to educate and inform them about work zone safety in a variety of ways including –

  • Local, state, and national awareness campaigns, including radio, television, and billboard/bus and social media ads
  • Safety fairs and events
  • Driver education training
  • Sharing statistics and stories with the news media
  • Distributing the state highway construction map every summer
  • Work zone safety websites and
  • Outreach to local residents and businesses near work zones

There is definite interest among construction, public works, law enforcement, and trucking partners in expanding educational campaigns in the future.

Partnerships are Key to Success

In fact, partnership was another component of work zone safety that everyone seemed to agree on.

“We’re working with the engineers in the Traffic Roadway Section on a variety of tools and criteria for slowing traffic through ODOT Maintenance work zones,” Moore said. “The short-term patch and repair jobs that ODOT Maintenance crews typically do are a different animal than long-term construction projects. Their willingness to help find solutions to keep our workers safe is great.”

“An effective partnership with the project managers is important to a successful enforcement operation,” Lt. Rentz said. “When we keep each other informed of issues, schedule changes, weather concerns, etc., things go well.”

Speed Through Orange Pay Twice the GreenRegular Communication is Best

There are so many challenges that go into creating effective and efficient work zones that it can seem like a balancing act for everyone involved. Regular communication and good working relationships were deemed essential to almost everyone we talked to.

“When we have prior notice about projects and work zones, we can plan accordingly,” Simons said. He went on to say that they have a satellite communication system that can send verbal warning messages to their drivers alerting them to a work zone.

In southern and south central Oregon, a series of construction season meetings called the Orange Cone Initiative is turning out to be a great way to improve communication and build relationships.

“The Orange Cone Initiative is being piloted in Regions 3 and 4,” said Project Manager Tom Feeley, who works out of ODOT’s Klamath Falls office and organized the meetings in his area. “Our main goal was to improve safety in our work zones by letting people know about our construction and maintenance activities.”

At the meetings, contractors, ODOT employees, local public works and emergency responders, along with local businesses such as delivery services and others, get together and go over the projects planned for summer.
“We discussed our construction and maintenance work zones and laid out a simple schedule of activities on the road around the district,” Feeley said. “We also discussed and agreed upon what the protocol was for emergency services to get through our work zones safely.”

Feeley said the meetings in Merrill, Lakeview, and Klamath Falls varied in discussion topics but were all great. “The meetings went well and had good participation.”

“I think this type of meeting works really well in smaller areas,” Feeley said. “Logistically it might be harder in larger areas because you’d have so many more people participating. In that case, a conference or a series of small sessions might work.”

“What we learned from those in attendance was that they want to know what is happening, when it’s happening, and who to contact.” Feeley said. “I think it opened up another line of communication between all of those who attended.”

We Must Continue to Work Together

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for improving work zone safety. We all know there are competing priorities and many different factors that go into the design, implementation, and maintenance of a work zone. Indeed, “safe” means many things to people when it comes to work zones, but there are commonalities in thought. When we share similar concerns and priorities it makes finding solutions to problems much easier. Together, we can make a difference in work zone safety.

Get a copy of the 2014 Oregon highway summer construction map.

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