No Room for Error

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has designated April 15-19, 2013, as this year’s National Work Zone Awareness Week (NWZAW). The annual awareness week is intended to bring national attention to motorist and worker safety in work zones. 

The number of fatalities, injuries and vehicle crashes in work zones has decreased in recent years, partially because motorists are more aware of the dangers workers are exposed to in work zones. However, more needs to be done to educate workers how to stay safe when traffic is moving by or trucks and equipment are moving inside the work zone so they avoid being struck, injured or killed. Statistics show that more workers are struck by vehicles and equipment inside the barricades than are struck by vehicles passing by the work zone.

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Worker Safety

The key to working safely in work zones, day or night, is knowing the ABCs of work zone safety:

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A: Awareness
B: Be Visible
C: Communicate

Workers and management personnel must know and share the ABCs of work zone safety.

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Awareness is a matter of the worker knowing where he is in relation to the traffic on the road and/or the movement of vehicles and equipment within the work zone at all times. Workers must keep an eye on traffic and not turn their backs to it. They should also have thought about an escape route in the event that a vehicle crashes through the cones or barricades. Workers also need to be alert and aware of where equipment and vehicles are moving inside the work zone (inside the cones and barrels). Workers must stay alert and be aware of the potential hazards that exist in the work zone.

Being visible requires workers to wear the proper type of fluorescent retro-reflective garments for the type of traffic situation. Hazard warning signs, lights and markings must also meet requirements established by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) and be retro-reflective. 

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Communication requires everyone to know and understand the work zone hazards and the tools that alert drivers to the work zone, so workers can safely guide vehicles through the work zone. Through the use of signs, cones, barrels, barricades, arrow boards and lights, the driver should be guided through the work zone. Flashing lights can draw attention to special hazards, such as a truck crossing or obstruction. Flaggers wearing the proper type of high-visibility garments should communicate with drivers using Slow/Stop paddles and hand signals. Workers should also watch each other’s backs and communicate with each other about potential hazards.

Be Seen

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State and federal laws require workers to wear Class 2 or Class 3 garments when working in or near roadways. The requirements may also vary depending on the type of traffic situation, speed of traffic and if the work occurs day or night.

Two-thirds of the work zone fatalities occur inside the barricades when workers are struck by trucks or equipment. It is just as difficult for the driver of a truck delivering pipe to see a worker as it is for drivers outside the barrels. This is especially true when workers are wearing camouflage clothing or clothing that blends in with their background. Workers inside the work area who are exposed to trucks and mobile equipment should also be required to wear highly visible garments or safety vests.  

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High-Visibility Garments

Not all safety vests are created equal. The American National Standards Institute and the International Safety Equipment Association (ANSI/ISEA 107-2010) have established a voluntary consensus performance standard for high-visibility vests and garments. The standard provides guidance for using high-visibility safety apparel.

High-visibility clothing is intended to clearly distinguish the worker from the environment. The basic high-visibility garment includes three components: background material, retro-reflective material (bands) and combined-performance material (a combination of retro-reflective and fluorescent material that may separate the two). The color of the background material and the combined-performance material can either be fluorescent yellow-green or fluorescent orange-red. Combined performance material is considered part of the background for purposes of total area required. Retro-reflective material reflects light back to the source when light shines on it.

The standard also defines three garment classes (referred to as conspicuity) based on the surface area of background and retro-reflective material used to make the garment. The three ANSI/ISEA garment categories are based on worker hazards and tasks, complexity of the work environment or background and vehicular traffic and speed.

The new standard states that the workers should be conspicuous through the full range of body motions and be identifiable as a person. Most construction workers need to wear Performance Class 2 garments. However, there will be situations when working in or near the roadway where vehicles are traveling at 50+ mph and during periods of darkness or poor lighting conditions that Class 3 garments will be required. In addition, some states like Virginia require all workers exposed to traffic including those workers inside the barricades wear Performance Class 3 garments. This trend to expand the requirements to the wearing of Performance Class 3 garments is likely to continue within individual states, so always check state requirements.

Traffic Control Plans

A traffic control plan (TCP) should be prepared and implemented for each construction site on or near roadways. The TCP should meet the requirements set forth in the MUTCD, and should indicate where cones, barrels, signs, lights, arrow boards, sign boards, etc., should be placed. The size, position, brightness and retro-reflective elements of warning devices are addressed in the MUTCD. All signs and warning devices set along the roadway must meet these requirements.

Work zones should be set up to give sufficient advanced warning to drivers. Drivers should be warned of work zones well in advance of reaching the work zone so they can adjust to the changing road conditions, slow down or stop, and move through the work zone safely.

To protect workers inside the work areas, employers should also create a traffic control plan that will control the flow and limit worker exposure to trucks and equipment that must move in, out and around the work area. For example, setting up the inside TCP that allows dump trucks to enter the work area and dump their loads with as little backing as possible is one way to limit worker exposure and accidents. 

Heavy equipment such as front-end loaders, bull dozers, scrapers and other equipment have blind spots. Therefore it is important to ensure that the equipment is equipped with horns, mirrors, backup cameras, backup alarms and/or other devices that will warn both operators and workers of impending hazards. Requiring workers wear the high-visibility garments will also help operators see workers and warn workers as the equipment is moved around the site. Vehicles used around the jobsite at night should be conspicuously marked on all sides with retro-reflective material so they stand out no matter what side of the equipment is facing traffic.


Working in work zones is not new to many construction workers. However, job-specific training programs should be developed, and all workers who are required to work in areas where they are exposed to traffic inside or outside the barricades should be educated about the potential hazards, the TCP and the requirements for wearing high-visibility garments. Although the work and hazards may not be much different from the daytime work, nighttime work may require some additional precautions that should be shared with employees because the hazards may not look the same or may be in areas that are not adequately lighted.
Working in roadway work zones or on construction sites where vehicles and equipment are routinely in motion is always dangerous. Workers must understand the importance of being visible to drivers and equipment operators. For example, every worker should be instructed not to walk or work behind equipment and to make their presence known to the operator before approaching equipment.

Flaggers, a title that probably should be changed because most construction situations require the use of Stop/Slow paddles ó not flags ó must be trained in the fundamental concepts of flagging (directing traffic), proper type and use of equipment and proper flagging/traffic control procedures. Only trained and authorized employees should be permitted to be flaggers. Check your state for certified flagger requirements and training programs.

Working Safely

Most drivers would probably prefer to see all construction work along roadways done at night to reduce traffic delays, but that will never happen. And I am pretty sure construction workers would like to see the roadway shutdown when they are working near it, but that is not going to happen either.
To build and maintain roads, install utilities and develop new areas for construction, workers will be exposed to traffic. There is no way to avoid it completely; therefore, work zones must be properly planned, signs and traffic control devices will have to be placed, workers will have to wear high-visibility garments and be trained to perform their jobs safely in and around work zones. Make your work zones a safe place to work by designing and implementing TCPs. Teach your workers the ABCs of work zone safety. It will benefit your company, your workers and the motoring public.
George Kennedy is NUCA Vice President of Safety.

OSHA has taken an active interest in work zone safety in reference to signs, barricades and high-visibility garments and has been issuing citations under the General Duty Claus. Refer to MUTCD Part IV or your state’s version of the MUTCD for more information about the requirements. An electronic copy of the MUTCD Part IV is available online for reference or download from the Federal Highway Administration at