October 29, 2010 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 4Comment

I recently logged 1,300 miles in a rented white PT Cruiser traveling on I-94 from Chicago to Milwaukee and Madison, WI, down I-65 and I-74 to Cincinnati and up I-75 to Detroit. Along the way I saw dozens of road construction projects to expand traffic lanes, repair overpasses, and repave the road surface. Workers were dutifully wearing hard hats and reflective vests, but these protections seemed completely inadequate for the deadly hazards in their midst. Vehicles were zipping past within a few feet of the workers, with only a line of plastic barrels as a barrier. At one site near Dayton, the company must have run out of barrels and the only thing between the workers and the fast moving cars were some beat-up orange traffic cones. Workers visibility—already impaired by the inadequate lighting for night-time work—was further clouded by thick plumes of dust generated by the chopping, cutting and grinding of the concrete. Other workers with their own tasks in the vicinity were forced to breathe in the respirable dust, a hazard that causes irreversible lung damage, including silicosis and lung cancer. With the dust came the deafening noise and its full-body assault on their cardiovascular and nervous systems. Would the workplace conditions been so grim had it not been the dark of night, or with a safety inspector on the scene?

No doubt some (or most) of these transportation infrastructure projects are funded by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a., the stimulus bill. Ohio Governor Ted Stricklin, for example, says 149 new transportation infrastructure projects are possible because of the $774 million in federal funding. Likewise, the I-94 improvements I saw in Wisconsin were supported by federal stimulus funds. Would it be so hard to build into these contracts top-of-the-line protections for the people doing the road work? I know State agencies are strapped for cash, and low-bid contracts stretch these funds, but efforts to stimulate the economy should not be at the expense of workers’ lives and health.

I’ve learned that the bible governing work zone safety is the “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD)” It’s a 864-page document with origins dating back to 1927 when an association of state and highway officials recognized the need for uniform standards for traffic control and road signs. I’ve not studied the document fully, but enough to be troubled by the inadequacy of standards to protect the WORKERS in the construction zones. The manual is full of all kinds of procedures to reduce inconvenience to drivers, ensure the effectiveness of signage, and provide efficient traffic flow. It seems wholly inadequate, however, in requirements to protect the people actually doing the road construction work from being killed by a distracted, intoxicated or just careless driver. I expected, for example, to see a requirement for concrete barriers along highway work zones where traffic speeds exceed say 45 MPH. I found no such requirement.

I plan to continue researching the application and authority of the MUTCD. I’ve heard that OSHA defers to the MUTCD because the agency doesn’t have its own standards on work zone safety. I plan to find out more about that, too.

4 thoughts on “Roadtrip observations of workers safety (sort of) during highway construction

  1. Isn’t it just shocking that instances like these exist? You would hope that safety would be first priority for those working on America’s highways. It’s as easy as providing high vis vests, ample lighting, masks…it’s a shame that mandates like this aren’t followed.

  2. Hello from England! Exactly the same here. Road cones expected to stop 32Ton lorries! The highways agency do enforce a speed restriction past workers reduced from 70mph to 50mph so that’ll save ’em!

  3. This is a good post that should get a lot of people thinking. But, I must say that reading through it got me thinking – ok, this post has a point, but how can the worker’s safety be improved when working on highways? I mean, you have cars flying by – if you get hit by a car going 160 km/h the chances of surviving that are minimal. One viable option would be to have policemen before the workers that would make sure an appropriate speed limit would be respected, but apart from that I cannot think of anything smarter

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