Working on or near a road

The second of three Themes
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Working on or near a road

Introduction

We do not have much data on accidents involving work on or near roads. This may be because it is not clear who should collect and maintain such data, whether it is the road authorities or the labour inspectorates. As an occupational group, road workers can also be hard to identify, often being included in a category with other construction workers in statistics on work accidents. But the data we do have give cause for concern. These include the following:

  • Construction workers are generally most at risk for an occupational accident.
  • Over 100 road workers are killed on Californian roads each year.
  • Fatality rates for UK road workers rank among the highest for different occupations reported by the HSE.
  • Between 2005 and 2010, nine road workers were killed while working on major roads in England alone, and ten others were reported to have been killed while driving through road works. In 2010 there were four fatal incidents involving road workers and two involving construction workers.
  • Injuries to road workers in New South Wales (Australia) cost more than 100 million dollars per year
  • Risks are higher for road workers than for other construction workers in the Netherlands, where one in ten road workers report at least one near miss in the course of a working year, and one out of five report an incident with material damage in the last year.
  • Maintenance of highways is responsible for the highest single risk to workers in Switzerland, where the risk of being killed or injured is up to a hundred times greater than it is for other workers .

In this article the risks and countermeasures related to working on or near a road are described.

Risk assessment

Risk assessment

We should assess the risks involved in being near or operating any vehicle or other moveable equipment while at work

To do this we need to think about the existing problems that might cause harm during the planned task. We refer to these problems as hazards. In addition to hazards, we need to describe any risks. Risks are potential situations that might lead to harm during the task.

We need to think about the risks involved for both workers and other road users. During the risk assessment we should also identify any control actions that are already in place and find out whether they are sufficient to deal with the problem - if not we need to put additional controls in place.

Once we have looked at the threats involved in carrying out the work task, we then need to assess the likelihood that they will result in an incident or accident. We also need to assess the consequences of such an incident or accident, should it occur.

A risk assessment does not need to be complicated. The basic idea is to think carefully about what could go wrong and how serious the consequences would be, so that adequate control measures can be put in place.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has developed an interactive risk assessment tool to help. The Agency recommends a five step approach to carry out a risk assessment:

  • Step 1: Identify hazards and those at risk
  • Step 2: Evaluate and prioritise risks
  • Step 3. Decide on preventive action
  • Step 4. Take action
  • Step 5. Monitor and review

It is important to document the risk assessment. A document acts as a record to show whether and how the risk assessment has been done. It is useful for other workers who need to assess the risks for similar tasks in the future.

It is also a useful record for managers and inspectors. It is also important to put in place a robust reporting mechanism that helps ensure that any incident that happens while an employee is working is reported to management. We should investigate all such incidents to find out what caused them. We should then develop and implement control actions to prevent such incidents happening again. 

IntroductionRisk control levels

Risk control levels

A fundamental way we can protect workers it to control their exposure to occupational hazards.

The process of risk assessment should clarify the hazards and the risks involved work related vehicle activities to be conducted, both to workers and to the public, i.e. other road users.The risk assessment should also identify those control actions that are in place and determine whether they are sufficient - if not additional control strategies will need to be implemented.

The risk assessment is a careful examination of the threats or hazards involved in different types of activities, the likelihood that threats actually produce incidents or accidents and the consequences of such incidents or accidents. A risk assessment does not need to be complicated, the basic idea is to carefully think over what can go wrong and how serious the consequences are, in order to put in place adequate mitigating measures. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has developed an interactive risk assessment tool that might be helpful.

There should be a robust reporting mechanism in place that ensures all and any incidents involving vehicles are reported to management. All such incidents should be investigated in order to determine the underlying causes. Suitable control actions should then be developed and implemented in order to prevent a recurrence. 

Risk assessmentSafety culture

Safety culture

An organisation that has an adequate or positive safety culture is one that values and has a strong focus on safety.

According to Reason (1997), the following elements identify good safety culture:

a)  Informed culture: The organization collects information about accidents and incidents, and carries out proactive countermeasures through safety audits and surveys on safety climate.

b) Reporting culture: All employees report their errors or near misses, and take part in surveys, audits and other safety activity.

c)  Just culture: An atmosphere of trust encourages and rewards its employees for providing information on errors and incidents. Employees know that they will receive fair and just treatment for any mistake they make.

d) Flexible culture: The organization has the ability to change its practices.

e)  Learning culture: The organization improves safety by learning from incident reports, safety audits and so forth.

A good safety culture demands that top managers take a leading role and serve as good examples. Manager commitment to safety and the company’s ability to use information to develop and improve safe working practices are perhaps the most important elements of a safety culture within an organization.

There is a growing interest in safety culture in professional road transport. The importance of safety culture for actual safety is clearly documented and demonstrated

Risk control levelsInteraction with road traffic

Interaction with road traffic

Interaction with road traffic is the most prominent risk factor involved in working on or near the road.

The most important issues are as follows:

  • The speed of passing traffic is often not sufficiently reduced to ensure the safety of road workers. This is the number one cause of death and injury in highway construction work zones.
  • Drivers can fail to notice road workers because of poor signage and lighting, and workers not wearing appropiate high visibility clothing to make them more conspicuous in poor light and weather conditions.
  • Drivers can fail to pay attention to work zone signs or other indicators that they should slow down or stop.
  • Drivers can fail to merge with other traffic properly on narrowed approaches to roadworks, often because they are distracted by phone calls, conversations or roadside activities.
  • Some drivers may not wish to be delayed, waiting to merge until the last moment. They risk crashing with other road users or entering the work zone and endangering the lives of workers.
  • Road workers often cross outside the limits of the designated work zone, where they have increased risk of being hit by road traffic.
  • Road workers entering and exiting road work zones in works vehicles into live traffic lanes
Safety cultureEnvironmental risks

Environmental risks

Road workers work outdoors in all kinds of weather.

Exposure to rain, wind, cold, extreme heat and bright sun puts workers at risk of injury and illness. The risks involved in wintry conditions include extreme discomfort, slips and falls. There is risk of sunburn and dehydration in the summer. When there is fog or rain and poor visibility, workers may not be seen by drivers until it is too late. This may also apply at night, dusk, dawn or in strong, low sun. Wearing appropiate high-visibility clothing is therefore a very important requirement for these workers.

Interaction with road trafficWork related risks

Driving of construction and maintenance vehicles

Construction and maintenance vehicles include bulldozers, compactors, asphalt rollers, backhoes and excavators and other specialised heavy and light commercial vehicles. People driving these vehicles are exposed to multiple hazards including fumes, noise and vibrations. The main hazard however is risk of collision with other vehicles or pedestrians. Within the area designated for work, collisions mainly occur during manoeuvres (turning, reversing). Collisions with road users mainly occur when the construction vehicle enters or leaves the road work zone, or when a road user enters the road work zone.

Moving construction and maintenance vehicles can be a risk to others, in particular to cyclists, pedestrians and co-workers moving around the  worksite.

According to a Dutch study, the main risk factors for road workers are road traffic passing at high speeds, limited protection from physical barriers and restricted room for manoeuvre within the work area. Other important issues include the visibility and conspicuity, of both roadworks and road workers, and long and irregular working hours that can lead to fatigue.

Specific risk factors for construction and maintenance vehicles

Lack of physical barriers

For temporary road works, cones or line markings are used to demarcate, delimit and increase the visibility of the road works. However, they give the workers no physical protection from traffic that can easily enter the work zone.

Limited workspace

At roadworks many people and machines are present and operating simultaneously. Multiple parallel tasks often result in a complex and unpredictable interaction of workers and vehicles. Space for manoeuvring  is often poor. Where space is very limited, passing road traffic must also interact with roadworks vehicles. According to a Norwegian study of fatal accidents associated with roadworks, pedestrians and bicyclists are especially at risk of being hit by construction vehicles.

Restricted view

Restricted view of people and obstacles is a particular problem for drivers of construction and maintenance vehicles. This is even more of a problem when the subject is poorly visible, which is often the case when the work is carried out in the dark or in adverse weather conditions.

Fatigue

Fatigue is extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical effort. A fatigued worker may not  be able to perform his or her task sufficiently or safely. Roadworks are frequently carried out at night to minimize traffic disruption. We know from traffic safety and worker safety studies that drivers who drive throughout the night are more prone to fatigue and sleepiness.  We also know that drivers who are fatigued are more likely to have a serious accident than drivers who are not fatigued. While we know little about fatigue in drivers of construction vehicles, we can expect fatigue to be a problem for them too. This will especially be the case for those who have had poor sleep, work throughout the night, and/or carry out tasks that are demanding or monotonous. Fatigued drivers of construction vehicles will be less vigilant and less aware.

Interaction with road traffic

Interaction with road traffic is a particular challenge for maintenance vehicles with limited speed, because they are an obstacle for normal traffic. Road users can act aggressively towards construction drivers, and the latter may be hit by ordinary road traffic. Collision with road traffic is a particular risk when the driver and/or the vehicle enters or leaves the road work zone.

Vibrations

Body vibration is a risk factor for many drivers of construction and maintenance vehicles. Prolonged exposure leads to fatigue or result in dizziness, nausea and blindness. Body vibrations pose a particular threat to the health of the lower back, spine and general musculoskeletal system.

Effective control measures

Effective control measures limit the risks involved in driving of construction and maintenance vehicles. The following are typical:

  • Segregate pedestrian workers and ordinary road traffic from routes used by works traffic.
  • Segregate site vehicles, delivery vehicles and private vehicles by establishing private parking areas, specified delivery routes and storage areas.
  • Minimise the need for reversing operations by establishing one-way routes and safe exit points.
  • Make sure the work zones and the vehicles are clearly marked and visible, and clearly illuminated in poor light or darkness.
  • Make sure workers always wear and use the appropriate category of high-visibility clothing and equipment.
  • Set speed limits and speed controls for both work site traffic and passing road traffic.
  • Improve driver view around the vehicle using auxiliary vision aids such as CCTV, convex mirrors or other appropriate measures.
  • Ensure that the vehicles in use are fit for purpose and properly maintained.

The European Transport Safety Council has produced an extensive report on road safety at work zones with recommendations and links to guidelines and good practices. One example is the guide on the safe use of vehicles at construction sites by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The Irish Health and Safety Authority have also published a comprehensive guide on safety at roadworks sites.

Work related risksTraffic segregation and signage

Traffic segregation and signage

Traffic must be properly segregated and signposted before any work can start on the road. After the roadworks are finished, the traffic flows and road signs must be restored to normal operation. This type of work involves placing or removing cones on the road, placing or removing barriers, and erecting or removing signs. Although often assisted by machines, this work can still be physically demanding.

This work is potentially very dangerous, because the workers perform their work in live traffic situations without any barriers when road traffic is flowing at ordinary high speed. At this stage the workspace will be poorly defined and some work will inevitably need to be carried out in live traffic lanes. Special care should thus be taken when opening and closing the live traffic lanes for the start of the works.

Advance warning of upcoming road works increases driver awareness, so that they can adjust expectations, reduce speed or choose an alternative route to avoid the roadworks. Overhead gantries should not be used in isolation to inform the road user as they approach the roadworks; signs must be used to support the messages.

The most important risk factor for workers when they are segregating and signing traffic is the interaction with normal road traffic. The risk is particularly high because there is no defined workplace, work is done in the midst of traffic, often at night when visibility is often poor. The work can also be physically demanding.

Specific risk factors for construction and maintenance vehicles

Visibility

Visibilityis key to safety. Workers who sign and demarcate a roadworks are particularly vulnerable if they are poorly visible, since they have to put up signs and cones in normal traffic and often at night. Construction and maintenance work in established zones is also often conducted at night, or in weather or sun conditions causing low visibility.

Weather conditions

Workers are outside, working on or near a road in all kinds of weather conditions. Workers who are exposed to extreme or prolonged rain, wind, cold, heat and bright sun are at increased risk of injury and illness.

Fatigue

Roadworks often take place at night in order to minimize traffic disruption. Workers thus have to cope with non-standard working times. We know from traffic safety studies  that drivers who are fatigued are more likely to have a serious accident than drivers who are not fatigued. Road construction workers who are fatigued may be less vigilant and aware.

Aggression

Motorists often become frustrated, impatient and irritated when progressing slowly on approach to and through the roadworks. This will be worse if the driver does not expect the roadworks or cannot see the need for speed restrictions or lane narrowing.

Effective control measures

Effective control measures to limit the risks to workers who segregate and sign traffic include:

  • Plan thoroughly for the work to be carried out safely. This includes ensuring that the steps involved in segregating and signing traffic are carried out in an order that minimizes the threat from interaction with live traffic.
  • Make sure that workers wear high-visibility clothing and use and maintain proper warning lights on and around vehicles at all times.
  • Limit the exposure of workers to traffic by automating the placing of barriers and signs.
  • Inform motorists about the time and place of the planned roadworks well in advance, if possible e.g. using radio announcements or digital road signs.
  • Minimize the time between placing out of lower speed limits, lane adjustments etc. and actual carrying out of the roadworks. Remove the traffic restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so after the roadworks are completed.

The Department of Transport (UK) provides extensive information and guidelines to how to conduct proper traffic signage and segregation.

Driving of construction and maintenance vehicles Pedestrian workers in roadworks

Pedestrian workers in roadworks

Pedestrian workers in work sites on the road are those who flag or otherwise control traffic, or those involved in grinding, placing speedometers, operating machinery, laying kerbs, performing repair works and so on. To do their work, they often have to work at or across the boundary between the work site and passing traffic where they are at risk of being struck.

Another main safety issue for these workers is interaction with other machines and vehicles within the work site, where many frequent and unpredictable movements occur within a confined space. Workers are at risk of being struck by moving construction vehicles at such sites. According to US statistics, construction equipment accidents cause as many pedestrian worker deaths as other traffic vehicles do. The risks are increased by planning under pressure, poorly visible workers or roadworks, limited protection from barriers and a tightly confined workspace.

Since pedestrian workers work outside, often surrounded by construction machines and traffic, they are also exposed to extreme weather, noise, fumes (diesel and bitumen) vibrations from machines and aggression from road users.

Specific risk factors for pedestrian workers on road work sites

Visibility

Visibilityis key to safety. Construction and maintenance workers are particularly vulnerable to collision if they are poorly visible, since they often work at night or in weather or sun conditions causing low visibility.

In some countries, lanes are altered to increase the visibility of roadworks. The new lanes (or interim lanes) are marked with a different colour such that they take clear precedence over normal driving lanes. In Germany, Poland and many other European countries, the altered lanes are yellow; in Switzerland and in Ireland they are orange.

Interaction with construction vehicles

According to US figures, dump truck collisions are responsible for four out of ten fatal accidents involving pedestrian workers in road work sites. In half of the cases the dump truck is reversing. Thus the construction vehicles and machines involved in roadworks constitute an important risk factor to pedestrian workers on such sites.

Work at night

Roadworks are frequently carried out at night, to minimize disruption to traffic. Road workers thus have to cope with non-standard working times and limited visibility. When planning roadworks, the road administrator (client) should consider the risks involved in scheduling work for the night.

Weather conditions

Workers are outside, working on or near a road in all kinds of weather conditions. Workers who are exposed to extreme or prolonged rain, wind, cold, heat and bright sun are at increased risk of injury and illness.

Aggression

Road users can be aggressive towards pedestrian workers. This can occur when they experience inconvenience and journey delays due to construction works, or if they have to wait for workers (waste collection, roadside maintenance services) to pass.

Noise and vibrations

Workers on or near the road use machinery and tools that make noise. Prolonged use exposes them to high noise levels, which may eventually lead to hearing deficits or even deafness. The time taken for this to occur depends on the particular noise levels and duration of exposure.

Tools such as blowers and grinders and other hand tools create hand-arm vibrations. These can result in pain in the fingers and hands, joint malformations and arthritis.

Fumes Those working on or near the road often use diesel engines, because of their large capacity, durability, reliability and high efficiency. Emissions from diesel motors contain harmful fumes. If it enters the lungs, the dust or toxins in these fumes can enter the bloodstream and eventually damage the liver, kidneys and heart. Diesel emissions can cause lung diseases (such as shortness of breath and bronchitis) and heart disease. Bitumen, used in road construction for asphalt, irritates the lungs and skin.

Effective control measures

  • Account for safety from the very outset of the project.
  • Make a joint project plan with client, contractors and subcontractors.
  • As a matter of course the tendering process carried out by the clients should detail the need for a risk assessment for the whole work zone, along with the need for planning and execution of resulting mitigation measures. Roadworks have to be carried out in very little time to limit the impact on traffic flows. As a result many activities are performed simultaneously. Thus it is vital that safe operations are thoroughly thought about and planned.
  • Limit to the need for work to be carried out by persons in the road, using automated alternatives whenever possible.
  • Use protective barriers to segregate the work zone from passing traffic instead of “soft barriers and signage”.
  • Ensure proper use of personal protective equipment, such as safety shoes, hard hats, ear protections, masks, high-visibility jackets and so on. This is vital to protect pedestrian workers from the risks posed by construction machines and vehicles and passing road traffic.
  • Train workers to keep well away from traffic, be vigilant to threats and stay visible.
Traffic segregation and signageMaintenance of roadside areas

Maintenance of roadside areas

The work involved in the maintenance of green roadside areas includes mowing, cutting, and hedge and tree maintenance. Often the work requires use of machinery such as mowers and clippers.

There are several risks involved in this kind of work and they include those from exposure to noise, fumes and vibrations, but also collisions with road traffic. Prolonged spells outdoors also presents risks e.g. sunburn, extreme cold and so on.

Passing traffic presents a serious risk to those working near major roads, especially if travelling at high speed. Passing traffic is often considered the main risk factor. Traffic is also a risk for those working in urban areas, but here there is the added threat of aggression from other road users.

Specific risk factors for works on roadside areas

Weather conditions

Workers are outside, working on or near a road in all kinds of weather conditions. Workers who are exposed to extreme or prolonged rain, wind, cold, heat and bright sun are at increased risk of injury and illness.

Aggression

Road users can be aggressive towards pedestrian workers. This can occur when they experience discomfort due to construction works, or delays because they have to wait for workers (waste collection, roadside maintenance services) to pass.

Noise and vibrations

Workers on or near the road use machinery and tools that make noise. Extensive or prolonged use exposes them to the risk of hearing deficits or even deafness. The time taken for this to occur depends on the particular noise levels and duration of exposure. Tools such as blowers and grinders and other hand tools create hand-arm vibrations. These can result in pain in the fingers and hands, joint malformations and arthritis.

Fumes

Diesel engines are widely used for work on roadside areas because of their large capacity, durability, reliability and high efficiency. Emissions from diesel engines and road traffic contain harmful fumes. If it enters the lungs, the dust or toxins in these fumes can enter the bloodstream and eventually damage the liver, kidneys and heart. Diesel emissions can cause lung diseases (such as shortness of breath and bronchitis) and heart disease. Bitumen, used for asphalt in road construction, irritates the lungs and skin.

Effective control measures

  • Limit the need for work to be carried out on foot at the roadside; use automated alternatives.
  • Use physical barriers that afford protection to pedestrian workers, instead of “soft barriers and signage”.
  • Ensure appropriate personal protective equipment is used at all times, e.g. safety shoes, hard hats, ear protections, visibility jackets at so on. This will help protect pedestrian workers from the risks posed by tools and machines and passing road traffic.
  • Train workers to stay away from passing traffic and other threats, to remain vigilant to threats and ensure that both they and any surrounding threats are highly visible.
Pedestrian workers in roadworks