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CDC Report Suggests Ways to Prevent Injuries, Fatalities to Workers in Highway Work Zones

NIOSH Update:

May 15, 2001
Contact: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health(NIOSH)
Fred Blosser, Media Relations (202)401-3749

Ways to build on current safeguards and better protect workers in highway and street work zones from serious injury and death are recommended in a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Each year, nearly 100 workers are killed and more than 20,000 are injured in highway and street construction, according to the report, “Building Safer Highway Work Zones: Measures to Prevent Worker Injuries from Vehicles and Equipment.” Traditionally, job safety efforts in the industry have focused mostly on reducing the risk of workers being struck unintentionally by passing motorists. However, traffic-related injuries account for only half of work zone fatalities, NIOSH found. The other half result from workers being struck by construction vehicles and equipment inside the work zone.

“Every day, when orange traffic cones prompt us to slow down and drive carefully near work zones, we are reminded that highway and street construction is hard and potentially hazardous work,” said CDC Director Jeffrey P. Koplan, M.D., M.P.H. “As we enter the busy spring construction season, NIOSH’s new document offers practical and comprehensive advice for reducing workers’ risk of injury.”

Current industry and government standards set requirements and provide guidance for many elements of work zone safety, such as setup of work zones, use of signs and pavement markings for traffic control, provision of high-visibility apparel for workers, and flagging and signaling practices. However, these existing programs do not provide comprehensive guidance to ensure worker safety. Based on extensive discussions with diverse stakeholders as well as on its own investigations of work zone employee fatalities, NIOSH’s new report suggests ways that employers, contracting agencies, policy makers, equipment manufacturers, workers, researchers, and others can fill existing gaps. The report includes these recommendations:

  • As activities, work locations, and other conditions change in work zones, employers should act strategically to protect workers by continuously identifying, evaluating, and mitigating hazardous conditions.
  • High-visibility apparel should be provided to all workers in highway construction zones, not just to workers who help direct traffic flow. Any worker routinely on foot in a work zone is at potential risk of injury.
  • All workers on highway and street construction work zones should receive training specific to the hazards of being struck by moving construction vehicles and equipment.
  • As a standard practice, contracting agencies should consider incorporating the costs of worker safety protection into bid specifications. Currently, safety-conscious contractors risk losing contracts because bids that include more comprehensive worker protection may be less competitive.
  • Contractors, contracting agencies, policy makers, manufacturers, law enforcement officials, and the research community should work in partnership to prevent occupational injuries in work zones.
  • Policy makers should work together to ensure that regulations from agencies with overlapping jurisdiction are compatible.
  • Transportation safety and construction safety researchers should collaborate on work zone safety research. Because work zone safety involves both traffic and worker safety, the perspectives of both communities are needed to ensure that recommendations from one are compatible with those from the other.

“NIOSH has worked closely with employers, equipment manufacturers, workers, unions, safety organizations, and other state and federal agencies to address job-related risks in work zones,” said NIOSH Acting Director Lawrence J. Fine, M.D., Dr.P.H. “The new report brings all of those perspectives to bear on our mutual goal of preventing worker injuries and deaths.”

In addition to making recommendations for preventing worker injuries, the new report also provides comprehensive information to help employers, workers, and others address potential hazards at individual work sites. The report includes extensive information on numbers, rates, and causes of occupational fatalities and injuries in work zones, current safety requirements for the industry, and 29 case studies of worker fatalities that NIOSH has investigated, along with specific recommendations for preventing similar fatalities in the future.

CDC protects people’s health and safety by preventing and controlling diseases and injuries; enhances health decisions by providing credible information on critical health issues, and promotes healthy living through strong partnerships with local, national, and international organizations. CDC’s NIOSH conducts research and makes recommendations for preventing occupational injury, illness, and death. It has worked closely with diverse partners on numerous studies to protect the health and safety of workers in relation to motor vehicles and highway construction.

Editor’s Note: “Building Safer Highway Work Zones: Measures to Prevent Worker Injuries from Vehicles and Equipment,” DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2001-128, is available on the NIOSH Web site or at no charge by calling NIOSH at toll-free 1-800-35-NIOSH (1-800-356-4674). For further information on NIOSH research, call the toll-free NIOSH information number, 1-800-35-NIOSH (1-800-356-4674) or visit the NIOSH Web site at