A Nightly Ounce of Prevention

Jan. 1, 2007
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By Elizabeth Cutright

“You’ll find most contractors can reference some horror story in their past that caused them to find Jesus when it comes to their safety program,” says John Meola, certified safety professional and associate in risk management for VMS Inc. headquartered in Richmond, VA. VMS provides private asset management services for highways and major infrastructure in five states.

“Unfortunately, it’s a short-lived effect,” continues Meola. “Five years, and they get lazy again. So they start cutting corners, or managers have changed. The guys with the knowledge have left, and many have retired. So it takes a lot of work and consistent dedication to these things to stay ahead of the curve.”

Due to the combination of heavy machinery, loud noises, and compromised visibility, construction work zones are inherently dangerous places. Once the sun goes down, the hazards multiply and safety becomes even more important.

David Rush, senior transportation engineer who oversees the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) safety program, explains the advantages of nighttime work and highlights the three biggest safety issues involved. “The main reason we work at night is less traffic,” he says, “so we have fewer delays. Because there are fewer vehicles, traffic speeds tend to increase, so I guess you could say our number-one concern would be speeding in the work zones. The second one would be an impaired driver, and third would be visibility at night for our workers, plus visibility for travelers down the roadway.”

In order to keep the public and employees safe during nighttime construction projects, there must be a plan, the right equipment, and a commitment to use both. Providing the correct gear and equipment will do little if the site has not been laid out correctly. While it may be tempting to get by on the bare minimum in order to increase that ever-holy profit margin, the safety of your crew and the civilians who come in contact with them is worth more than the almighty dollar. Ultimately, by providing the best possible protections to all involved, a contractor can limit his liability in the event of an accident and make sure everyone ends the workday safe and sound and heading for home.

Planning and Public Information
Starting out with a safety game plan should be the first priority on any nighttime job. Consideration must be paid not only to the site setup but also to public notification before and during the project. Because an integral part of any safety plan involves public awareness, it’s important to give drivers as much advance warning as possible.

Mike Chicoine, vice president of United Safety Authority, sums it all up: “The biggest challenge at night is making the driver aware as much in advance as possible.”

Colin Jones, Caltrans Central Coast Region spokesman, describes California’s public information campaign aimed at speeding and inattentive drivers and explains why it’s in the public’s best interest to slow down. “You’ve heard of the whole ‘slow for the cone zone’ campaign? That’s not just for us,” he says. “It’s for motorists: Motorists are more likely to get killed or injured in a work zone than a worker is. A lot of people don’t realize that. Our strategy is, ‘Hey it’s for your benefit, your family’s benefit, and your passengers’ benefit to maintain a good safe speed when going through a construction zone, and even slow down a little bit—give yourself some extra time.’”

Sonya Herrera of the Arizona DOT illustrates how Arizona has campaigned to keep workers and the public safe. “Our greatest concern is the traveling public because, while there are things that we can do to help mitigate those hazards, that’s always something we can’t have complete control over,” she says. “I think it’s absolutely imperative to have a public information campaign in order for us to be successful to better educate the public. With our ‘slow in the cone zone’ campaign, we actually use DOT employees to make those service announcements.”

The Virginia DOT has a set series of checks and balances to ensure the safety of its nighttime road crews. “When we’re working on the interstate, which most of our nighttime work zones are on, we use Virginia state police,” explains Rush, “and the devices we use are some of the brightest devices on the market.

“Again, it’s about the motorists,” he emphasizes. “We’re looking after their safety, as well as the workers’, when we’re doing this night work. They have to pay attention, they have to merge over, so we have to make sure the signing and lighting and everything is really clear for them.”

According to Meola, effectively handling public awareness means planning for every possibility. “If you are working late at night, you must have a very highly developed sense of awareness for incapacitated drivers or impaired drivers. You must anticipate that impaired drivers—disoriented, confused, fatigued, drunk, stoned, everything in between—may come into your work zone at full speed. What are you going to do to protect your people in those circumstances?

“It’s like an exponential factor at night,” continues Meola. “All of the bets go up. The ante is raised. ‘Do I place one sign here, or do I need two sets of signs?’ ‘Is that bar going to close at 2 a.m. and send me a stream of drunks running through my cone line?’ ‘What’s protecting my guys working in that manhole?’ ‘Well, I better put my truck there.’

“But as soon as you put the truck there,” warns Meola, “they slam into it and bust their front teeth. Now you’re liable. Did you set this work zone up properly? As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into it.”

Drivers are only part of the equation. It’s also important to watch over your employees: Make sure they are well rested, well trained, and well informed of the dangers and protections available to them.

“Fatigue issues are very, very important,” states Meola. “Did they get enough rest? Repeated and progressive sleep deprivation causes what’s called microbursts of sleep. These are uncontrollable, and you cannot overcome a microburst. So now you’ve got a guy falling asleep while he is running heavy machinery, walking on a beam, whatever. Fatigue issues are incredibly important.”

Proper training also contributes to greater safety for workers. In that vein, OSHA has created a 10-hour training course geared toward construction safety, with one hour of the course focusing specifically on nighttime safety. In addition, OSHA has published the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which specifies the types of safety equipment required in construction zones and details the best way to use that equipment. According to Meola, every aspect of the road is governed by this MUTCD.

In particular, says Meola, “Chapter 6 gets into the nitty gritty as to how to set up a work zone. All work zones must be configured according to the MUTCD standards: extremely precisely measured in feet and inches. All devices and regulations must be in strict compliance with the MUTCD.”

Meola advises contractors and crew managers that the MUTCD sets only the minimal standards for work zone safety. “When you look at the standards, some of them are pretty bare bones,” he says. “You’d be amazed at how little they actually specify for some work zones.”

As is usually the case, going beyond the bare minimum will significantly improve your site’s safety. “If you read it in more depth,” explains Meola, “they give many options: programmable message boards, illuminated arrow boards that show direct placement of a lane closure. Those are additional elements above and beyond the MUTCD, which basically gives you a very primitive set of standards: cones, barrels, fixed signage.”

In addition to federal standards, most states’ departments of transportation have their own nighttime safety requirements. Meola points to Florida’s safety program as an example of how DOTs can ensure the safety of workers and drivers. “Florida, for example, has probably one of the best traffic engineer standards of all types,” he says. “When it comes to their highway safety, they require that any person working on the road have a minimum level of what they call MOT training, maintenance of traffic. They require that any contractor who’s even thinking of sending his people out have at least the supervisor and some of the crew members trained and certified. They actually have a certificate-level course.”

The Virginia DOT also keeps a tight reign on nighttime projects. “One of the things we’re asking our contractors,” says Rush, “is that from time to time they periodically drive through the work zones especially focusing on the overhead lights that we use. They are supposed to be shining down, not at a 45-degree angle. Sometimes as work moves down the road, the lights need readjusting so that they are focusing down.”

The safety devices should also be monitored, says Rush. “Make sure cones and things haven’t been moved, where there might be a gap in the cones or a gap in the drums where somebody could actually get in, especially around the areas of off-ramps and on-ramps and interstate changes. Make sure the devices are clean. There tends to be a tendency for the signs we use to roll up and then they get moisture on them so they’re harder to see. We ask crews to look for that and to be aware of that, to wipe signs off.”

Visibility is key for nighttime work. Obviously, it’s important to see what you are doing, but within the context of visibility at night, being seen is equally important. This means not only making the public aware of your project but also giving your crew the tools and the training to ensure their own safety.

Lights, Camera, Action
Of course, sometimes visibility simply means being able to see and be seen. That’s when having the right equipment comes in handy. First and foremost, nighttime work sites require sufficient illumination. Jones explains how Caltrans prepares its crews and work zones for nighttime work. “We light up our construction zones as much as we can,” he says. “We sign it well ahead; we use those long, tapered cones. We don’t just close it off right where we’re doing the work. Instead we try to get people to gradually merge over.”

Just setting up some lanterns and cones is not enough, but figuring out wattage and placement of lights can be an involved and complicated process. For many contractors, finding the right amount and type of illumination can be tricky.

“What happens,” explains Meola, “is they bring out these huge banks of lights. The lights can cause problems if they are not properly aimed and properly placed around the work site. They’ve got to be aimed so they’re providing illumination to the workers in the work zone but they’re not blinding motorists. And that’s very hard to achieve because work zones are typically narrow, very constrictive. So wherever you put these lights, somebody’s going to get it in the face, whether they’re oncoming, outgoing, or in the opposite lane, or the workers themselves are having to overcome the glare.”

“You have a lot of equipment on the road, and a lot of the equipment—the bulldozers, the backhoes—have bright lights, headlights, to light up where they’re working,” elaborates Skip Foley of Traffic Control LLC. “Those lights are not discriminatory to immediately in front of the backhoe, and those can sometimes affect drivers.”

Rush describes some of the new lighting technologies the Virginia DOT plans to implement. “There is a new kind of balloon-type lights that have less glare for motorists,” he says. “That’s something we’re investigating.”

Work Area Protection Corp. has just developed a new soft light. With a polycarbonate dome, the Nite Light combines strong construction with a lightweight, easily transported configuration. The Nite Light provides non-glaring white light from a high-intensity gas-filled lamp ignited by state-of-the-art microprocessor-controlled electronics. This technology allows the Nite Light to provide a highly visible non-glaring light that can be powered by any 120-volt AC, 60-Hertz electrical source using a standard plug.

“Lighting overall is the key,” reiterates Foley. “If you can have those nice overhead lights in the station, it’s a much better situation.”

As we all know, even in the best conditions, the human eye has its limitations. In addition to lighting your work zone, it’s a good idea to add a third eye to the mix. That’s where vehicle-mounted cameras come into play.

Danny Penny of Intec Video describes how small cameras positioned by vehicle blind spots may also help improve nighttime safety. “We manufacture rear and blind spot vision video systems that consist generally of a monitor that the operator uses, a camera positioned to see the blind spot or behind the vehicle or equipment, and a cable between the two. Whereas there are countless variations on that including multiple camera systems—even multiple monitor systems—it’s basically a camera, monitor, and cable.”

Although the cameras are primarily used during the day, Penny says that because of the advanced technology involved, the cameras can be used at night without any major adjustments. “Typically,” he says, “as long as there’s illumination for people to work in, there’s more than enough light for the cameras to operate. In fact, the better-quality cameras have image sensors in them that enable operation in less light than you and I can see.

“A lot of that work is done at night, with very sparse illumination,” continues Penny. “So these cameras have to be equipped with image-sensitive chips inside them. They are actually tiny chips that act like the retina in your eye. They capture an image in the lens, just as your eye does, and they convert that image into an electronic signal that then is displayed on either the cathode ray tube monitor or on a flat screen LCD. Specifically regarding nighttime operation, it’s critical that the camera have a very sensitive imager so it can see in a wide range of lighting conditions from bright sunlight to near darkness. The technology has improved, so the current cameras see much better—they provide a much clearer image in very low light than the old cameras used to.”

Your workers need to see what they’re doing, but they also need to be seen in action. That’s when clothing and other reflective gear becomes important. As Chicoine points out, the newer reflective gear available is not only a good choice but is also a government requirement. “The government’s now requiring the ANSI spec clothing which is much more reflective than it used to be,” he says. “You know, where the guys used to wear the regular old vest with no reflective. So there’s steps being taken, and it’s all in the reflective end of the game.”

Rick Norton, sales manager with Transportation Safety Apparel, explains the government regulations for reflective clothing. “In our field it’s the class three vest. These vests have sleeves on them for full body motion—that’s a new requirement for class three, and that’s what you have to wear at night.

“All of our jackets have a class three rating,” continues Norton. “They have ANSI-approved fluorescent lime or orange color; plus, it must have striping, a visible background of 240 square inches of high-visibility color like the lime or the orange, and reflective visibility—you have to have 310 square inches to have a class three requirement.”

Foley elaborates on the government requirements. “The DOTs—federal and state—all adopted it. These have to have basically 2-inch bands of retro-reflective material on them, including one going completely around the waist.

“We’re moving toward the lime green–colored vests and light helmets as opposed to the nice bright orange that we’ve used in the past,” continues Foley, “because at night you cannot see those bright orange helmets. They reflect black because there’s not enough light to give an orange color. The orange vests also reflect black, whereas the lime green reflects white, giving you a better visual of the torso of the flagger.”

Chicoine summarizes the basic equipment needed for nighttime work. “You definitely have to have reflective signs, starting with engineer grade, which is the bottom-line reflective, and you go up to diamond grade, depending on the state requirements. Then, of course, we have aero boards, message boards; depending on the length of the project they may be required. For the working protection you have the high-visibility ANSI clothing, which are the highly reflective vests.”

“There’s a lot of garments that are still out there in the industry that are not meeting the ANSI standards,” warns Meola, “particularly for the night work, which involves so many square inches of this reflective material. It’s very critical that workers are wearing the approved garments, with maximum amount of reflective trim.”

Providing reflective trim on a garment in and of itself is not enough. Meola points out that the design and placement of the trim is equally important. “Some of them are still using reflective materials with a chevron pattern on the back,” Meola says. “At night all you see are the chevrons. You’re basically putting a target on their back. It’s like an arrow aiming the motorist. It’s like saying, ‘Over here, drive this way!’

“So for a lot of reasons the reflective material is extremely important for night work,” sums up Meola. “They have to be clean and clearly displayed; they have to keep the vests closed or buttoned, not folded or obscured.”

Reflective clothing is only half the battle. The gear used by your crew must also be up to par. That includes signs, flags, barrels, and anything else that can define your “cone zone.”

Meola describes the risks of setting up that work zone. “We have an expression here,” he says. “‘Placing the first cone is the time of maximum danger.’”

Chicoine lists some of the reflective gear that is essential for any nighttime work zone: “Stop/slow paddles, which would be reflective, and an LED version, which has lighting on it. We also sell the vehicle lights to put on top of the truck so people know you’re there. We have barricade lights for the barricades or barrels, or whatever you use to delineate the traffic.”

Chicoine also mentions LED as a newer innovation with useful safety implications. “Depending on where the work is, some of the newer innovations are like the LED stop/slow panes. Where they didn’t have those 10 years ago, they do now,” he says.

“We have retro-reflective signs that jump back,” explains Foley, listing some additional equipment available for nighttime work zones. “When you’re driving down the turnpike and you see a sign way down the road all lit up, even when there is no light there, the sign is just reflecting off your headlights. It jumps right back at you and you can see it very clearly. You may not be able to read it at that distance, but it shines right at you.”

Unfortunately, you may not be able to fully grasp the effectiveness of your reflective gear until you put it into action. “Many of the lights they produce nowadays—many of the products—look really nice,” warns Foley, “until you’re driving at them at 30 to 35 miles per hour. Then they aren’t nearly as effective as you’d like to think they are, because of too much distraction, or they’re not that bright.”

“Use a flare to call motorists’ attention to a worker’s presence on the road,” advises Meola. “Strobe lights on all vehicles in the work zone can be a valuable addition to a work zone—strobe lights or a rotating beacon.”

Another important piece of equipment cited by Meola is the Truck Mounted Attenuator, or TMA. Also known as crash cushions, TMAs, Meola advises, should be strategically placed at the beginning of a work zone. “Errant vehicle intrusion is listed as one of the greatest dangers to work zones,” he says. “The way to break that up is to put a TMA in the most appropriate place to protect your people in the work zone.”

One of the most effective safety additions to your work site involves local law enforcement. “Get a police presence out there,” advises Meola. “You rent these guys, you’re going to pay them overtime, but it’s like $30 to $50 an hour to get these guys out there. That is the single most effective insurance policy: to make sure drivers slow down as opposed to barreling through your work zone at full tilt.”

According to Jones, Caltrans often employs police assistance for nighttime work on California’s highways. “A lot of times when we do nighttime work on a big freeway we have a CHP unit. We call it our ‘construction zone enforcement program,’” he says. “People slow down more when they see a CHP unit rather than a Caltrans truck. It catches your attention, and they’re not just sitting there—there’s looking for violations; they’re looking for speeders. They’re making sure people are driving safely through that work zone.”

“As for improving safety in nighttime work zones, the key is more law enforcement,” agrees Herrera. “The traveling public doesn’t slow down for the amber lights; they slow down for the red and blue. So the presence of law enforcement is actually the greatest motivator for the general public to comply with our traffic controls that are out there.”

Meola believes that if contractors conscientiously implemented the tools listed above, they could significantly increase the safety in their nighttime work zones. “If we get six out of eight, five out of six, we’re doing good,” he says. “Practice this religiously. If somebody’s out there even doing half of those things, chances are they’ve got a pretty good chance.”

Safety in the Zone
While motorists can cause serious damage, it’s important to note that dangers can also lurk within the construction zone itself. “An equally greater problem,” states Meola, “is the number of accidents in the work zone. These are usually severe, fatal injuries, because you have workers on the ground.”

Meola elaborates on a recent accident and its implications: “We just had an accident here where a contractor was doing a paving job at night, and one of the 10-wheel dump trucks backed over a supervisor. It happens a lot.

“That is actually one of the leading hazards on paving jobs,” continues Meola, “because you have vehicles traveling in opposite directions in that constricted space. You’ve got a guillotine effect: rollers going one way, pavers going another. It’s chaos out there, and it happens in a very narrow, 12-foot-wide travel lane.”

Since a typical dump truck can be up to 10 feet wide, it’s easy to see how the corralling of heavy equipment and workers into a 12-foot workspace can make construction zones a catastrophe waiting to happen. In response to some of these dangers, OSHA has classified crew members working outside of heavy equipment or vehicles as “workers on foot.”

“A ‘worker on foot’ is a protected species out there because when they are on foot they are highly vulnerable to the class of accidents that’s called ‘caught in or between,’” explains Meola. “It doesn’t say caught in or between what, but you can extrapolate large pieces of equipment either on track or rollers or big tires. Well, caught in between that stuff means you’re in pieces. These are horrific accidents. That’s the hazard in the work zone.”

This hazard is only compounded at night, when artificial lighting can blind drivers and dark corners become even more invisible. Within that context, Penny feels his cameras offer a safety solution for many of the “in zone” hazards endemic to nighttime work. “There are a number of accidents that occur—monthly or annually, either way, it’s too much,” he says. “Construction sites generally have people walking around and doing their jobs, and these trucks, backing blindly, create a hazard. Sometimes people don’t pay attention. Sometimes that ‘beep, beep, beep’ that you hear when a truck is backing up is ignored. It just kind of blends into the background after a while. The driver in the truck cannot see directly behind it; he has to rely on mirrors, which can see down the sides of the truck but cannot see directly behind it.

“And all too often,” continues Penny, “a worker gets in harm’s way and doesn’t see the truck coming, slips and falls or trips over something, or otherwise gets behind the truck, and unfortunately he gets run over and killed.”

Cameras not only allow drivers to see any activity occurring in a vehicle’s blind spot; their sensitive lenses actually add visibility during nighttime work. “You mount the camera as high as you can,” explains Penny, “to provide as wide a field of view as you can behind the vehicle or equipment. Cameras are an extremely effective tool because they give that operator visibility where he normally is absolutely blind.”

“How people are getting killed is no secret,” declares Meola. “The problem is preventing and communicating to the workers the hazard.”

Your Own Worst Enemy
All the PR, equipment, and training in the world will do little to extend work zone safety if project managers and contractors fail to diligently adhere to their safety programs. It’s not enough to have the right equipment if it’s dirty. It’s not enough to pay lip service to safety without acting to guarantee all protocols are being followed.

“Typically they try to cut corners,” says Meola. “On any major project, usually the traffic control portion is bid separately from the job, or if it’s included in the job, the contractor has the option of bidding on it and including it in his price. Or he might just sub it out.  But some say, ‘Well, I can do it. I’m not only going to do the paving; I’m going to do the traffic control.’”

Chicoine agrees. “Between you, me, and the lamppost,” he says, “the biggest drawback to safety is the contractors who try to get by without meeting code because of the cost. What they don’t understand is that keeping your people on the job is going to save them so much money over the workers’ comp and lost time and things like that.”

“What happens,” elaborates Meola, “is contractors are notorious. This guy—he’s the best paver in the world—he’ll pave anything. But when it comes to traffic control, [that isn’t the case]. Still, he says, ‘No. I want that $10,000 allotted for traffic control; I want it for me.’ Well, he’s going to do the minimum, the absolute minimum.”

The design of the plan, the placement of the devices, and the maintenance of the devices are the key elements of any construction zone safety plan. Meola feels these elements are critical and emphasizes that many contractors understand this and are up to the challenge. “A lot of guys are good at it,” he says. “A lot of guys have a crew. That’s all they do: They put out the cones, they put out the signs, and they invest in good hardware. They buy good stuff, and they maintain it. You’ve got to take care of this stuff.

“But the main thing we see,” continues Meola, “is when a contractor tries to do both the job and the traffic control, something’s going to slip. Something’s going to be sacrificed, and usually it’s the traffic control.”

For Meola, the solution once again comes down to planning and diligent implementation. “They need to have a strong safety program—administrative, functional, operation, every element of it—with named responsibilities. It’s got to be designated among management,” he says, “because management is responsible for the safety program, not the employees; the employees are the recipients and beneficiaries of the program.”

Sometimes crews are lulled into complacency, feeling safe among the heavy vehicles and bright lights. Unfortunately, this sense of protection is not only an illusion but also a deadly mirage. Those pieces of equipment—those bright lights—can actually contribute to an injury or a fatality.

“Complacency, a false sense of protection, invulnerability. Saying, ‘Nobody’s going to clobber me. I’ve got a backhoe; I’ve got a roller; I’ve got a dump truck; I’ve got all this stuff here,’” says Meola. “Well, complacency is what gets people trapped between equipment.”

Although complacency may be an issue, Norton feels that a lack of knowledge can also affect the choices a contractor makes when it comes to safety. “They’re required to use this stuff, but not everybody uses the class three [safety equipment]. They’ll use what they use during the day. What they don’t realize is that [using equipment specially designed for night work will] help in case of an accident. They’ll be covered.”

In Conclusion
As cities expand and highways become increasingly congested, more and more roadwork will be bumped into the nighttime hours. Driving along the nation’s highways, drivers will begin to see crews setting up as the evening rush hour winds down or wrapping up before the morning commute hits full swing.

“As population increases, as traffic volumes increase, the trend is going toward night work,” predicts Jones. “Caltrans has more construction work going on now than we’ve ever had in our history—over $8 billion in construction statewide.

“With California’s population increasing,” continues Jones, “we’re going toward more night work just because there’s so much more traffic and construction going on. Unless it’s an emergency type of closure or type of work (like tree trimming) where there’s actually no safe way to do it at night, a majority of that work will be done during overnight hours. That’s the reality.”

With more workers on highways and thoroughfares at night and more drivers on the road at all hours, safety becomes more important and more complicated.

Jones believes nighttime safety lies in public awareness. “A lot of times the public just doesn’t understand when they see construction,” he says. “‘Why do they have this long taper and move me over and the work isn’t for another half mile?’ people ask. We’ve done that to get people over in an orderly way. If you get people to cut over at the last minute, that’s what causes accidents.”

Rush believes public awareness is just one side of the issue. “From the public side,” he says, “it’s being more aware of what’s going on. Workers should not only set up the traffic devices but monitor them throughout the night.”

“Traffic control is a science in and of itself,” declares Meola. “These guys might be the best pavers or bridge fixers or ditch cleaners, but the fact is they’re not the best when it comes to traffic control. They use old signs, the cones are dirty, and the guys don’t understand where they’re supposed to go.

“If I had to say there’s one thing you could do, it’s a good safety program, which is the umbrella for all of that stuff. It’s hard to convince people. They do a little of this, a little of that, and they think they’re covered.”

“It’s a double whammy,” says Jones. “Because population and traffic are increasing, you actually have more construction that you have to do and less time to do it. It’s a huge challenge, but that’s the way it’s going to be. It’s more and more of a challenge to work on highways because they’re older, more deteriorated, and there’s more traffic. And because there’s more traffic, there’s less of a window of opportunity to work. Night work is a reality of construction, and it is here to stay.” 

Elizabeth Cutright writes features for Forester publications.