Construction work zones are dangerous. Every day, workers who step foot on highways and roads risk danger from vehicle traffic and heavy equipment. Completing work is important, but when safety takes a back seat to production schedules, the result can be deadly. Take time to implement safety procedures and health in your work zones.

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), there are nearly 800 work zone fatalities each year. Knowing the statistics is important because it generates awareness. But that awareness must translate to action, including taking positive steps that will protect workers.

As site managers, you have the power to enforce practices that keep workers safe. The practices you implement will make the difference between life and death.

Your procedures, from how you train workers to how you develop safe work zone traffic conditions, need always be in tip-top shape. But what does that look like? Let’s look at five fundamentals to consider while gauging site safety.

Work zone orientation

You wouldn’t blindly walk into a site without knowing where possible hazards are, and neither should employees. Regardless of occupation, personnel always should be oriented to each work zone’s hazards and how to avoid them.

Employees who know the layout of the jobsite have a better chance to:

  • Recognize, eliminate, or avoid hazards involving equipment;
  • Know the locations and sizes of blind spots around equipment;
  • Know the hazards and protective measures associated with working at night; and
  • Understand communication methods and alarms.

Temporary traffic control

Flaggers are part of your traffic control efforts and are exposed to the number one cause of death on highway construction sites: struck-by vehicle traffic.

Providing flaggers with retroreflective garments is critical, but making sure they’re properly trained is another critical piece to the puzzle. Make sure that your flaggers are able to demonstrate the following abilities:

  • Ability to move and maneuver quickly to avoid danger from errant vehicles;
  • Ability to control signaling devices (such as paddles and flags) to provide clear and positive guidance to drivers approaching a temporary traffic control zone in frequently changing situations;
  • Ability to understand and apply safe traffic control practices, especially in stressful or emergency situations; and
  • Ability to recognize dangerous traffic situations and quickly warn nearby workers to avoid injury.

Traffic control devices

According to FHWA, of the 799 deaths that occurred in work zones, 203 of those involved high-speed accidents. To help prevent these deaths, you are required to create and maintain a traffic control plan.

A successful plan generally includes alerting news outlets or radio stations of the location of your work zone. However, media coverage can only go so far. Your worksite will also need to be ready with plenty of strategically placed traffic control devices (signs).

We’ve all seen traffic control signs while driving on a road or highway. They’re bright, sometimes annoying, yet very useful. That’s because whoever placed them probably did so effectively.

Distance is important. For example, when a single warning sign is used (on low-speed residential streets), the advance warning area should be at least 100 feet. However, when two or more warning signs are used on higher-speed streets, the advance warning area should extend a greater distance. Typically, signs should be placed in advance of your work zone based on the following distances:

  • 1st Advance Warning: 300ft-5,140ft 
  • 2nd Advance Warning: 200ft-4,140ft
  • 3rd Advance Warning: 100ft-2,640ft

Equipment and personnel

In 29 CFR 1926.20(b)(4), OSHA says that an employer may only permit employees qualified by training and experience to operate equipment and machinery. Key to the standard is that employees know how to operate equipment, while at the same time, remain vigilant about what’s going on around them.

In addition to the operator’s duty to ensure safety, employees working around equipment must also be aware. Provide the following tips to your employees before the start of each shift:

  • Don’t assume that the operator can see you;
  • Keep your eye on moving equipment near you at all times;
  • Stay away from heavy equipment when it’s operating;
  • Don’t touch any construction equipment operating near powerlines; and
  • Be aware of the swing radius of cranes and other equipment.

Protective garments

Yes, work zone safety depends on more than retroreflective garments, but they are a critical piece. Employees often wonder which class of retroreflective garments are appropriate for each work zone.

Each worksite will be completely different. Make sure you assign the correct protective garments so vehicle traffic, and fellow workers, see your employees. OSHA breaks down each garment in the following classes:

  1. Class 1 garments: These types of garments aren’t recommended because it makes distinguishing the average construction worker very difficult.
  2. Class 2 garments: Class 2 garments work well in situations where closeness of pedestrian worker to the traffic exists. Additionally, they’re appropriate in environments where vehicles/equipment are traveling at speeds of 25mph or more. Flaggers are required to wear Class 2 or 3 garments.
  3. Class 3 garments: When work environments get hectic, Class 3 garments are always reliable. Visible from one-quarter mile away, Class 3 garments allow workers to be clearly distinguishable in complex work zones where speeds are higher, and visibility is low.

Work zones are busy sites where bulldozers, forklifts, backhoes and cranes constantly are in motion with a common goal of maintaining highways and roads. Add in pedestrian traffic, and that equipment is easily capable of being involved in a serious injury or death to a worker or pedestrian.

Take action by inspecting your site and ensuring employees are following your company’s work zone policy. The more effort you put into making work zones a safe place, the better odds you have at not adding to the annual statistics.