Improvements for work zones contemplated

Imagine driving down the road and coming up on a work zone – but then you drop your cellphone and think nothing of taking your eyes off the road as you lean over to search for it, despite all of the signs and blinking lights alerting you to the presence of work crews ahead.

“A lot of the accidents or even minor incidents in work zones come from drivers who are complacent with road work,” said Bill Reed, Lycoming County Safety Coordinator for the state Department of Transportation.

As construction and maintenance on roads and bridges shifts into high gear, especially after winter months wreak havoc on pavement and sidewalks, drivers expect to see work zones – but visibility isn’t always enough.

“They’re almost too used to it, especially in recent years when a lot of projects have been started in the area,” Reed said.

Ordway Hinkel, a Highway Maintenance Foreman with 28 years of experience with PennDOT, couldn’t agree more.

“People get immune to signs,” he said. “Flares have more of an effect, but we can’t burn flares the entire workday throughout the entire work zone.”

Hinkel, who taught safety courses for PennDOT workers for 19 years, has seen close calls and accidents without number, including several of his own.

One incident happened “years ago,” he said, when he was working on a road maintenance crew as a flagger, at a work site on Route 87.

“A woman dropped her compact, her little mirror, on the floor of the car and leaned over to get it – she must have been going 55 miles an hour,” Hinkel said. “You couldn’t even see her in the car when she was coming up on us.”

Hinkel had to drop everything and jump out of the way, scrambling up an embankment to escape the oncoming vehicle.

“She ran right over my stop sign, right where I was standing,” he said.

Jobs in the road work and construction sector certainly carry an inherent risk; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were 609 deaths nationwide in 2012 in “construction and maintenance work zones.”

Of those deaths, however, 76 percent – more than two-thirds – were attributed to “transportation incidents,” with 67 percent of those incidents caused when a pedestrian worker was struck by a vehicle.

The numbers hit close to home for Pennsylvania, which was fourth nationwide in fatalities in construction and maintenance work zones for eight years, from 2003 to 2012.

“They’re preventable accidents,” Hinkel said.

Reed noted that a maintenance worker in Lycoming county was recently injured in a work zone – fortunately, however, the injury occurred as the worker was jumping out of the path of a vehicle.

Increased safety measures are always a topic of concern, he said. His safety committee meets monthly to discuss incidents that have happened and to come up with ideas for increased safety, and requirements and best practices are regularly distributed from all levels of PennDOT management.

New technologies are also making a mark on the industry, Reed said, like LED-powered flares.

Unlike traditional combustion flares that will only burn for up to an hour, LED flares can remain powered on for hours at a time. They are also magnetized, Reed said, making them easy to attach to anything that needs to be more visible, from roll-up signs to vehicles.

PennDOT also is looking at safety for flaggers in the form of new reflective materials and changing the colors they wear based on the season, he said.

“Orange and yellow are great for spring because everything in the background is green, but in the fall, when the leaves are changing colors, it might not be as helpful,” he said.

Crews also are utilizing different traffic control guidelines this year, as well as brand-new signs, Reed said.

Increases in safety and changes to existing requirements always are welcome, Hinkel said.

As someone a year away from retirement, he said he’s never been on a crew that has lost someone in an accident, and he hopes he will never experience it.

“I have 9 people working for me on my crew,” he said, “and I want 9 people going home at the end of the day.”