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Safety in the Work Zone
by Don A. Felicella, P.E., ACTAR, and Donald J. Felicella, ACTAR
Felicella Consulting Engineers, Inc.
ASHE Gold Coast Section

Safety in the work zone is an issue that should be of concern to everyone associated with highway design, highway construction, maintenance of highways, and/or any other associated type work.

Every year thousands of people are involved in traffic crashes that occur in work zones. According to the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse, work zone crashes have resulted in a annual average of 700 to 800 deaths and thousands of injuries, not to mention the economic cost, which exceeds $3 billion per year. Many of these crashes can be attributed to either improperly maintained or improperly placed traffic control devices. We must all be aware that improperly placed or incorrectly used traffic control devices can cause injury or death and lead to liability lawsuits.

The legal liability of governmental entities and their representatives in the area of public safety has changed significantly in recent years. Federal regulations mandate minimum standards for public safety within work zone areas. Such standards and regulations include the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The MUTCD was adopted as a national standard pursuant to the authority of the Federal Uniform Code. The Federal Code has a provision which sets forth for the adoption of the MUTCD on a state level. Many states, by way of statutes, mandate that the Department of Transportation adopt a uniform system of traffic control devices for use on the streets and highways, i.e. the MUTCD. Many local municipalities have also adopted the MUTCD in some form or another, some knowingly and some not so knowingly. Some local municipalities will adopt their state's roadway design standards, which are actually dictated by the MUTCD. This can lead to unknown liability on cities, counties and engineering firms, not only for contributory negligence on the placement of traffic control devices, but also for improper training of those individuals in charge of the proper and safe placement of these devices in work zones and road maintenance. With the cited trends in place, it is incumbent upon the responsible governmental entity by way of their employees and/or representatives to implement these standards and regulations.

While we all need to be concerned about the legal aspect of a lawsuit, we must be more concerned about the safety of both the general public and the employee. By concentrating on this concern, the concern about the legal actions will be reduced. Two areas of work zone safety that are all too often either overlooked or not properly addressed are taper lengths and pedestrian traffic.

Taper Lengths: A common error is having too short of a taper length when channelizing devices are being used to redirect traffic flow. We must always remember that the function of channelizing devices are to provide a smooth and gradual transition in moving or redirecting traffic from one lane to another or for lane reduction. This should be done in such a way to provide a safe, smooth vehicular movement through the work area and provide a "safe" zone for workers and equipment. Remember, before a driver can slow and/or stop the driver must go through a perception-response phase, which includes the time the driver needs to see and recognize the traffic control devices and the time needed to respond to such devices. Even though the MUTCD provides minimum taper lengths, each situation should be reviewed in the field in order to determine if such lengths should be made longer. If vehicles are hitting their brakes and skidding, an evaluation of taper lengths may be in order.
Pedestrian Traffic: Have you ever heard the saying "children are people too"? Well, "pedestrians are traffic too". When a sidewalk is removed or work is being performed in area of pedestrian traffic, an alternative route for this traffic must be provided. I recently saw a sign which read "Sidewalk Closed" on a busy multilane road where some sidewalk work was being done. There was no alternate sidewalk, no safeguard for the pedestrian, and no advance warning. Have you ever see a sign abruptly placed on a road indicating "Lane Closed"? If a pedestrian is forced to walk in a traffic lane where a sidewalk is closed and is hit by a vehicle, even if that individual is intoxicated, you will probably find yourself involved in a lawsuit. Consideration for alternative pedestrian routes must start at the design stage of the Traffic Control Plans (TCP), and if overlooked in the TCP, the contractor is obligated and liable to make the necessary provisions for such a safe alternative pedestrian route.

Many of us have become complacent. We have been involved in numerous design and maintenance projects, or relocated countless miles of utilities, and we feel that we no longer need to read and digest the plans, specifications, special provisions, standards or any other of the associated "paper" aspects of the project. Wrong!

These and other documents define and detail our responsibilities and obligations, not only to the contracting agency, but also to the general public and our workers. These documents also detail the obligation and liability of individuals and/or entities when there is an accident within the work zone.

Some of the common language which provides the basis of our liability is found in the following documents: State Standard Specifications as it relates to the authority of the Engineer, and under the Maintenance of Traffic and in the sections pertaining to the Installation of Traffic Control Devices; the Manual of Uniform Minimum Standards with reference to a comprehensive plan for work site safety being required and that work site safety shall include provisions for the safety of motorists, pedestrians and workmen; the State Construction Manual with reference to the responsibility of the project engineer to see that the contractor provides the necessary safety devices and uses them in the required manner. The statements and references are endless. Read them and re-read them because the accident reconstructionist, other experts and attorneys will.

Accident reconstructionists consider certain factors in determining the cause of an accident or crash, such as driver, vehicle (mechanical), and roadway design features. In a work zone accident, you also have traffic control devices and their placement, or lack thereof, and the entity or entities responsible for such placement.

If one reads the many documents associated with a project, whether project specific or by reference, one will realize that the umbrella of liability covers all of us. To keep us from this unwanted rain of liability we must all think Safety in the Work Zone from the design stage to the final cleaning of the project.

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