Work Zones in High Gear

The stimulus money began flowing to road reconstruction projects to March. More money brings more work zones, more (temporary) congestion, and more risk.

The 10th annual National Work Zone Awareness week was held April 6-10, 2009, with "Drive to Survive—Our Future is Riding On It!" serving as the week's theme. The national kickoff took place April 7 on the George Washington Parkway near a bridge replacement project between Washington, D.C. and Virginia, a fitting location given the federal government's stimulus of infrastructure projects this year. More money brings more work zones, more (temporary) congestion, and more risk.

A Facts & Statistics page from the Federal Highway Administration's Work Zone Mobility and Safety Program explains why FHWA is involved in the national campaign: Work zone activity is increasing, construction work typically occurs on busy existing roads, and a high number of fatalities and injuries occur in the zones. The latest data available are for 2007, when 835 deaths were recorded in highway construction zones nationwide and 40,224 highway fatalities occurred outside the zones. Texas ranked highest that year with 124 work zone fatalities, followed by Florida (92), California (80), Georgia (65), and Alabama and North Carolina (35 each).

These data come from the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse, which is owned by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association Transportation Development Foundation (ARTBA-TDF). The clearinghouse's Web site, which is managed by the Texas Transportation Institute, is a leading resource for roadway construction zone safety information; the clearinghouse received a 2008 Global Road Achievement Award from the International Road Federation in the advocacy category earlier this year.

Each year in April, National Work Zone Awareness Week (NWZAW) is held to bring national attention to motorist and worker safety and mobility issues in work zones. Beginning in late 1999, FHWA has worked with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) to coordinate and sponsor the event. Since then other transportation partners have joined the effort to support NWZAW. In addition to a national event conducted each year, many states host their own events. The 2008 kickoff event took place in Sacramento, Calif., but moved back to the Washington, D.C., area to commemorate the event's 10th anniversary.

President Obama spoke at DOT's headquarters on March 3 as he announced $28 billion was being released from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to states and local transportation authorities to repair and build highways, roads, and bridges. "Of the 3.5 million jobs that will be created and saved over the next two years as a result of this recovery plan, 400,000 will be jobs rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges, and schools, repairing our faulty levees and dams, connecting nearly every American to broadband, and upgrading the buses and trains that commuters take every day," Obama said. "Many of these projects will be coordinated by Secretary LaHood and all of you at the Department of Transportation. And I want you to know that the American public is grateful to public servants like you—men and women whose work isn't always recognized, but whose jobs are critical to our nation's safety, security, and prosperity. You have never been more important than you are right now, and for that we are all grateful.

"Altogether, this investment in highways will create or save 150,000 jobs by the end of next year, most of them in the private sector," he said. "The jobs that we're creating are good jobs that pay more than average; jobs grinding asphalt and paving roads, filling potholes, making street signs, repairing stop lights, replacing guard rails. But what makes this investment so important is not simply that we will jumpstart job creation, or reduce the congestion that costs us nearly $80 billion a year, or rebuild the aging roads that cost drivers billions more a year in upkeep. What makes it so important is that by investing in roads that have earned a grade of D- by America's leading civil engineers—roads that should have been rebuilt long ago—we can save some 14,000 men and women who lose their lives each year due to bad roads and driving conditions. Like a broken levee or a bridge with a shaky foundation, poor roads are a public hazard—and we have a responsibility to fix them."

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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