How Dangerous Is It to Be a Road Worker?

Late one June evening in 2021, a 37-year-old worker was assembling traffic control signs and preparing to place them near mile marker 67.5 on Interstate 95 in White Marsh, Maryland. He walked into a traffic lane and was struck by the right-hand side mirror of a semi-truck and the corner of its trailer.

At about 2:00 p.m. in late August 2020, a 62-year-old worker for the Wyoming Department of Transportation was operating a road sweeper at a state highway construction site in Jackson. She parked the sweeper and turned it off, but the brake was not fully engaged. The sweeper was parked backward on a 5% grade, and it began to roll down the incline. It struck the worker.

What do these two incidents have in common? Both involved road workers. Both were fatal.

These are but two real-life examples of people who lost their lives while performing road work. Many others have suffered unimaginable physical and psychological harm while simply trying to do their jobs. The purpose of this article is to understand more about the dangers that road workers face, what can be done to mitigate these hazards, and who is ultimately responsible for the safety of these workers.

Roadside Construction Is Necessary, But Does It Have to Be Dangerous?

Roadside construction is a necessary part of daily life. Our highways and utilities require roadside maintenance from time to time, and large construction projects will inevitably bump up against busy highways. However, there's a cost to roadside projects. Construction has the highest fatality rate of any industry, but roadside construction sites alone account for nearly 3% of all fatal workplace incidents annually. According to the CDC, over 2,000 workers lost their lives at road construction sites from 2003 to 2019, or an average of 124 a year.

In other words, it's extremely dangerous to be a road worker in the United States.

The Most Common Accidents for Roadside Construction Workers

While roadside workers experience a wide variety of accidents, the vast majority of fatal accidents fall into a single category. About 76% of fatal injuries at roadside job sites from 2011 to 2017 were "transportation events," or motor vehicle accidents. Two-thirds of transportation events were workers who were hit by a vehicle in the construction zone.

Both of the incidents we discussed above involved road workers who were struck by vehicles while on the job. The man assembling traffic control signals on Interstate 95 was hit by a passing tractor-trailer. The woman who was operating the road sweeper in Jackson was run over by the very vehicle she had been operating. Roadside workers do not stand a chance against an immense vehicle like a sweeper or a semi. In fact, the road sweeper gained so much momentum from the 5% grade that it bent 4 steel delineator posts, crossed a highway, and only came to a stop after crashing into the side of a mountain.

According to statistics from 2011 to 2017, vehicles involved in fatal accidents at roadside construction sites included:

  • Pickups and SUVs (151 incidents)
  • Machinery vehicles (131 incidents)
  • Automobiles (129 incidents)
  • Semi-trucks (124 incidents)
  • Dump trucks (82 incidents)

According to data for incidents where the direction of travel was noted, about 1 in 4 fatal vehicle accidents at roadside construction sites were backup accidents.

Blind spots are a major issue for road workers—and all construction workers—making the use of spotters and backup alarms essential to protecting workers from being struck by vehicles that are reversing or otherwise maneuvering near or across road construction sites.

Other Hazards Road Workers Face

In addition to vehicle accidents, road workers are also at risk of suffering serious harm caused by other obvious and not-so-obvious hazards.

Electrical Currents
Electrocution is a risk for road workers because of their proximity to utility lines and live circuits that run beneath the pavement, which provide power to nearby structures and roadside lighting systems.

Power Tools & Heavy Equipment
Construction vehicles aside, road workers often must operate or work near heavy machinery and tools that, if improperly operated or maintained, can put them at risk of injury. These may include jackhammers, circular saws, drills, and concrete saws, to name a few.

Heat, Overexertion & Exhaustion
In any weather, a road worker may suffer from overexertion or exhaustion as a result of the highly physical nature of their work and the fact that they are outdoors. These risks are significantly amplified when temperatures rise during the summer months.

Silica Dust & Asphalt Poisoning: Accidents Aren’t the Only Hazard for Road Workers

Road workers are at risk of more than electrocution, exhaustion, or being hit by a passing car or one of their crew’s construction vehicles. They face exposure to silica dust and asphalt fumes.

Silica dust, formally known as crystalline silica, is widely recognized as hazardous to humans when inhaled or ingested. It causes silicosis, an irreversible lung disease, and increases one’s risk of lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), kidney disease, and various autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. This dust is produced by work activities such as sanding, cutting, or grinding concrete, stone, or mortar. Road construction workers may be exposed to silica dust in many different ways: concrete milling, concrete sawing, dowel drilling, chipping, scabbling, jackhammering, grinding, sandblasting, grooving, and clean-up.

According to OSHA, more than 500,000 workers are exposed to asphalt fumes each year. Workers who are exposed to asphalt fumes in road paving tasks may experience headaches, fatigue, throat irritation, eye irritation, cough, rashes, loss of appetite, and even skin cancer. What’s worrying, however, is that there are no OSHA standards that specifically address asphalt fumes. Worker safety in this regard would fall under an employer’s general responsibility to maintain a reasonably safe workplace for their employees. This would include recognizing the hazard and taking measures to minimize it through personal protective equipment (PPE), training, and appropriate safety procedures.

Working with asphalt and concrete, road construction workers are at an increased risk of silicosis, cancer, and a host of life-altering health problems.

The Most Dangerous Roadside Jobs

Roadside construction sites include traditional construction projects, utility projects, and road maintenance. Each of those sites includes different roles and positions, all of which are recorded in fatal accident data. So, which positions are the most dangerous at a roadside construction site?

According to the CDC, construction laborers are the most likely to suffer fatal accidents. From 2012 to 2017, about 473 construction laborers suffered fatal injuries on the job.

The other roles/positions that were in fatal accidents include:

  • Truck operators (250)
  • Construction equipment operator (200)
  • First-line supervisors (163)
  • Highway maintenance workers (142)

In general, the vast majority (77%) of fatal roadside injuries happened to private-sector workers. Employees for state or local organizations made up roughly 7% of fatal incidents each.

The Most Dangerous States for Roadside Construction Work

Over a 15-year period, Texas ranked as the U.S. state with the most deaths at roadside construction sites with 218 fatalities—a sizable margin. Florida came in second with 132, followed by Pennsylvania (91), Illinois (83), California (76), and Tennessee (70).

Why Do These Incidents Happen?

Virtually any job that involves physical labor, working outdoors, and working around or with heavy machinery will have inherent risks. But, this does not mean that any accidents or injuries are justified. It does not mean that a road worker should have to think of their job as a life-or-death situation that needs to be navigated with the utmost care so they don’t develop cancer, lose a limb, or never return home.

Road worker accidents are preventable. Their common causes are:

  • Lack of proper training
  • Lack of proper oversight
  • Lack of adequate personal protective equipment
  • Improperly maintained equipment, vehicles, tools, or machinery
  • Lax safety procedures

Even an incident like the highway worker in Maryland who was hit by the side mirror of a semi-truck could have been prevented if the worksite had been properly lit and marked, which would have alerted the truck driver of the road worker’s presence. One could argue that the truck driver was to blame—and perhaps they held some responsibility if they were driving while distracted, for example—but there are still measures that would have reduced the likelihood of this incident and prevented the loss of that man’s life.

Who Is Ultimately Responsible for Road Worker Safety?

When it comes to road worker safety, the ultimate responsibility lies with their employers.

The General Duty Clause of the OSH Act says it best:

(a) Each employer -- (1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees; (2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

Even while assembling traffic control signs at the side of a state highway, operating a road sweeper, or jackhammering concrete, road workers have the right to a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards. Any hazard can be minimized with the right procedures in place, the right training and equipment, and a no-nonsense approach to implementing safety standards. No matter what.

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