By Mary Lou Jay

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New and improved roadways and bridges are a welcome addition to the U.S. transportation system, but the human cost to construct them can be very high. The number of workers and vehicle occupants killed in the work zones surrounding road construction projects is rising; in 2021, there were 857 such fatalities. 

Innovation in safety policies and equipment like moveable barriers in work zones can save lives — and their adoption is increasingly urgent as the nation prepares for a deluge of projects brought on by new funding provided in the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better Infrastructure Bill. A 2014 survey found almost half of highway contractors had a vehicle crash into their work zone over the previous year. One is one too many lives lost. Now is the time for Federal Aid Highway Program grantees to take advantage of the benefits of the range of policies that drive Positive Work Zone Protection. 

Positive Work Zone Protection policies result in the utilization of technology like movable barrier technology that prevent vehicles from intruding into the zone where vulnerable workers are active. That can include anything from barriers (portable concrete, and movable concrete); shadow vehicles with energy-absorbing attenuators; to vehicle arresting systems, such as portable netting, cables or energy-absorbing anchors. 

Research jointly produced by FHWA and the American Traffic Safety Services Association in 2015 found the cost benefit of positive work zone protection is “very high,” with costs typically recouped in five years or less on high volume roadways.  

Leading construction industry groups are pressing for wider adoption. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association, (ARTBA), has long considered work zone safety among its top priorities. The group issued a positive protection policy statement in September 2021, saying: “The increased use of positive protective measures between workers and motorists is an important strategy to reduce the number of deaths, injuries, accidents, and delays.” ARTBA called for quick and decisive action in implementing the technology. 

The Federal Highway Administration, for its part, is currently working on a new National Work Zone Safety Strategic Plan that could include updates to its positive protection policies. FHWA has not yet announced when the final plan will be published. 

In January 2022, ARTBA and several other prominent national industry organizations — the National Asphalt Paving Association, the American Traffic Safety Services Association, the Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of North America, the American Highway Users Alliance and the American Concrete Pavement Association — sent a letter to Martin Knopp, the Associate Administrator for Operations at FHWA, calling for the agency to go further to reduce workspace intrusion and worker-vehicle crashes. Commenting on a draft of the plan, the letter stated: 

“Currently, the [FHWA’s] language calls for use of positive protective measures if an engineering study indicates it would be appropriate. In actual application this language has shown that few states choose to do such a study — meaning positive protective measures have not advanced and the safety of workers as well as the traveling public may be jeopardized.” 

Some pioneering state DOTs have been adopting new work zone positive protection policies aimed at reducing and ultimately eliminating work zone fatalities and serious injuries. Over the next few months, in a series of articles, InfraTalk America will highlight their stories, including challenges they needed to overcome and the real-world safety benefits realized. 

 “There are technologies that road and bridge owners could be using right now to make work zones safer for both motorists and workers,” said Greg Nadeau, Publisher of InfraTalk America, a former state DOT Deputy Commissioner and a former Federal Highway Administrator. “If states will support contractors in expanding the use of Work Zone Positive Protection on more road construction projects, including neutralizing the cost in the bidding process, we can create safer work zones and better protect the lives of workers and the traveling public. We want to report on state and local agencies leading in this space.” 

Mary Lou Jay is a freelance writer based in Timonium, Maryland. Email comments to news@infratalkamerica.com