How Technology is Improving Highway Work Zone Safety

Construction safety is becoming more of a priority for government, construction companies and machine operators. There are a number of reasons for this including: concerns related to liability and unemployment rates going down.

Jordan Sherlock, president, North America Traffic, explains, “Employees are putting a higher value on themselves, which means a higher turnover for contractors if they don’t provide a safe working environment for their staff.”

Still, highway work zones are hazardous for both workers and drivers. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, there were an estimated 96,626 crashes in work zones in 2015, which is the most recent year data was collected. This is an increase of 7.8 percent from the previous year.

It boils down to this: a work zone crash occurs once every 5.4 minutes. Further, every day 70 work zone crashes occurred that resulted in at least one injury and every week 12 work zone crashes occurred that resulted in at least one fatality. The trend demonstrates that there is a higher frequency of fatalities in work zone crashes.

Technology can help in a number of different ways by collecting data and automating processes—essentially removing the worker from the dangerous situation.

Prioritizing Safety

Safety is becoming a greater priority for many construction projects. According to Paul Maturen, marketing manager, Construction and Food-Beverage, 3M, contractor safety records are becoming a more important selection criteria for awarding new contracts.

“Therefore, many contractors are actively working to improve their safety programs to both better protect their workers and make their bids more competitive,” he explains.

There are a number of different ways to accomplish this. For example, there is training information and expertise available. This includes personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers, industry associations, trade unions, insurance carriers and industry consultants.

Technology can also help improve worker safety. Electronic, cloud-based safety recordkeeping systems can track things like worker training records and PPE maintenance records, as well as help ensure workers are wearing the proper gear for the job, according to Maturen of 3M.

“Technology is advancing many other aspects of safety, from how workers communicate with each other, to new materials and designs that make PPE more durable and comfortable,” he continues.

Another example that is gaining some traction lately is wearable technology, which helps locate people on a jobsite and control access to certain areas.

The general trend is toward greater use of technology on the construction jobsite in order to ensure a higher level of safety.

Sherlock of North America Traffic agrees, saying, “Technology to me is the way of the future as far as promoting construction safety. The more that technology advances and becomes reliable, the more I can see owners and contractors making the capital investment to avoid the liability potential.”

The company offers a product that promotes automation as opposed to relying on workers in a work zone. More specifically, getting flag-persons off the road.

“In my opinion, technology is the only way to absolutely guarantee worker safety in work zone,” Sherlock continues.

Bringing Safety to the Site

While there are a number of different technical solutions to enable greater safety at the jobsite, construction companies must first train those working at the jobsite and create that culture of safety.

Maturen of 3M suggests that an excellent safety record starts with a strong safety culture that is driven by and actively supported from the head of the company and throughout the entire organization.

“When you look for a PPE provider, companies are increasingly looking to find partners that can help promote a culture of safety,” he says. “Often times, companies look for PPE innovation leaders or those that are actively engaged in helping develop the science of safety.”

On the flip side, Sherlock suggests worker safety training is a bit of a misnomer. This is because true work zone safety is impossible as long as there are workers present in work zones.

“You can provide all the training you want with all the PPE in the world,” he says. “That won’t stop a distracted driver from blowing through a work zone or prevent a truck driver from falling asleep at the wheel.”

This is why one of the company’s core objectives it to get workers out of work zones as much as possible through the use of technology.

When considering if safety on construction projects is improving, Sherlock says it is hard to say. While awareness is as high as it has ever been and there is a greater priority being placed on road project safety today, there are also more distracted drivers than ever before and work zones are becoming larger with more workers present.

“So it is a vicious cycle in some ways,” he says.

Still, technology can help in myriad ways by taking the worker out of the jobsite and replacing with automated solutions and equipment. It can also help track safety records and locate people on a job. Technology can help create greater safety on road project. It is a matter of identifying which solutions and creating that culture of safety throughout an entire construction organization.

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