Highway Work Zone Deaths Climbing

July 26, 2001
The Federal Highway Administration, state officials, and labor organizations told a Congressional panel July 24 that deaths in highway work zone accidents

The Federal Highway Administration, state officials, and labor organizations told a Congressional panel July 24 that deaths in highway work zone accidents are increasing, and outlined current and potential strategies to improve work zone safety, according to information from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The hearing was before the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

Larry Edginton, representing the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), a highway construction workers’ union, said that not enough is being done to protect workers in construction zones and that some initiatives to improve highway construction and repair efficiency may have actually negatively impacted worker safety. He cited as concerns the competitive project bidding process that reduces the importance of safety, compressed work schedules and reduced rights-of-way that force more workers into less work space, and increased night work during which a worker’s vision may be less effective and the risk of fatigue is greater.

Edginton suggested FHWA requirements placing a higher priority on safety in the bidding and planning stages of projects, and more research to improve materials and techniques.

Other witnesses detailed efforts they feel need to be made in the future, in order to improve safety, including:

*Removing safety program costs from the competitive bid process in order to ensure that safety costs are not cut and all contractors use the necessary precautions.

*Providing more protections for workers in work zones.

*Closing roads entirely for some repair projects, providing maximum efficiency with maximum safety for workers.

*Enforcing and possibly toughening work zone traffic laws.

*Educating the general public about work zone issues and laws.

*Using current technologies to provide prevailing road condition information to travelers so that they can better plan routes.

*Using higher quality materials in road projects to lengthen project lifespans, thereby reducing future maintenance costs, economic costs to delayed travelers and business, and safety costs.

*Improving training for work crews and work zone law enforcement officers.

The passage of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21) in 1998 signaled record levels of investment in the nation’s highways. Congestion is still a major transportation problem in the United States, and as TEA 21 projects continue to come on-line, work zones will be a frequent presence, according to the committee information.

Information presented at the hearing indicated that there are 500 work zones in New York, 150 in Pennsylvania, 400 in Illinois, 500 in Kansas--and in California, one in every five miles of highway is slated for work within the next five years.

In 1999, the latest year on record, fatalities reached a high of 872, and 39,000 other injuries occurred in work zones. From 1992 to 1999, between 106 and 136 highway worker fatalities occurred each year, 23 percent of which were due to workers being struck by vehicles. Most work zone accident victims are motorists, according to the information.