Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The work zone adrenaline rush

By Andrea E. Flatley

When’s the last time you paid attention to a work zone? I mean really paid attention? We all drive past them,  but do we really do much more than grumble as we realize the lane we’ve been traveling in is about to end?

Earlier this month, I was in one of those work zones and believe me I didn’t tell my mother about it beforehand.

I’m pretty green here at the Washington State Department of Transportation so when an area maintenance supervisor up in Skagit County invited me to join his team for a guardrail repair job, I jumped at the chance to get out into the field.

The Road Warrior
WSDOT is lucky enough to have Road Warriors. These utility vehicles hold flags and barrels, provide collision barriers to protect crews (that back trailer goes up for storage when it’s not in a work zone), have wells for easier and safer work zone barrier placement and have lighted sign abilities to inform drivers that lane closures are happening. For you Transformer fans they’re to WSDOT crews what Bumblebee is to Sam Witwicky.

Crews use the Road Warrior truck to lay out cones for lane closures as well as warning drivers of a work zone ahead.

How WSDOT closes a road
I’ve jumped out of an airplane before but that adrenaline rush was nothing like being in a work zone. Skydiving is a bit surreal while everything about road work is very real and just one distracted driver away from disaster.  If you ever hear someone saying WSDOT crews are shutting lanes longer than necessary please let them know that is not true. The crew I worked with wanted to get that work zone put up, the work done and get off that highway as quickly as possible.

We started out by getting two Road Warriors on northbound I-5 about three miles before the work zone in Burlington. We moved over into the passing lane – and yes, we were those vehicles that weren’t passing in the fast lane – that was the lane we needed to close as we prepared for median guardrail work. I realized quickly just how dangerous this part of the operation was when a semi that didn’t like our speed blew past us on the right. The honk he threw our ways wasn’t because we were doing the horn motion we all did as kids.

As we neared the work zone, we continued to slow and both Road Warrior operators flipped the lights on their rear signs so red flashing arrows showed up. The lead truck I was in came to a stop and the following truck stopped a distance behind us. Both had lowered their impact barriers and now the guys who were doing the barrel placement got ready. We had three guys on the back of the first truck. They were wearing full reflective pants and tops, hardhats and were harnessed into tie points. Together, they worked to pull down, assemble (barrels with their heavy rubber stands) and then set them out on the road.

Crews use the Road Warrior truck to lay out cones for lane closures as well as warning drivers of a work zone ahead.

It would be unsafe to abruptly block a lane so we started with a taper into a lane closure. These barrels were gradually placed from the median toward the middle of the two lanes.

The toughest part seemed to be the first half dozen barrels. Nothing is blocking the lane except for these two vehicles. You’re hoping drivers see the flashing red lights and move over and slow down. The Road Warrior started as far into the median as it could to drop the barrels. From there on out it was pretty smooth sailing as the guys on back communicated with the driver through a hands-free headset making sure the speed and direction was appropriate for the best barrel placement.

The guys made this happen quickly. In approximately 30 minutes they had a two-mile work zone coned off with Road Warriors in position behind each of the two different crews that were working.

Getting the work done
I was stationed up with the northern crew who were out of the trucks and moving with tools before I could even get my seatbelt off. They immediately got to work unscrewing short but mighty bolts holding the guardrail to the posts and digging out the wooden 4-by-8 posts to check for damage.

Several posts also have to be replaced along with the guardrail after being hit during a collision.

I spent most of my time watching from a spot in front of an equipment truck, constantly swiveling my head back to check traffic and make sure passing vehicles were staying right. On this day, they did, and I can’t thank you enough for slowing down and giving the workers room.

Before I knew it, these guys had a post replaced (only one in this section was damaged by the guardrail impact) and the new metal rail attached. The alignment was checked, bolts were tightened, the holes filled in and the guys were moving ahead to the next section.

The final result: A new section of guardrail to replace one damaged by a vehicle strike.

I was really impressed with the speed and efficiency the crews showed. They clearly work as quickly as they can, both for your convenience and because they’re working just feet away from 60 mph traffic and want to get out of there safely. It is not the most friendly work environment; I’d say crocodile wrestling might be less risky. To see more photos from this maintenance project, you can visit the WSDOT Flickr page.

Thank You
Thanks to this experience, I gained a better understanding of the risky job our workers do each day to make sure our roads are safe. Thank you to the drivers who did a great job of really paying attention to signs and this work zone. I’m off to call my mother now to tell her about my day, and I’m sure she thanks you too.

2 comments:

Eric said...

Please make sure any WSDOT vehicles that are moving aggressively and slowly into the fast lane are properly marked and/or are using their lights sooner rather than later. Last week, one of your vans cut me off unexpectedly while driving *much* slower than the traffic, and I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting him. The van was white or grey (it was after sunset) and not marked with any WSDOT logos. It did not turn on its warning lights until about 1/4 mile down the road, where it was pulling over to the center divide to with the rest of the crew.

WSDOT said...

Hey, Eric -
Thanks for the comment. If you can email me specific details (date, time, highway, etc.) I will get this passed onto the correct supervisor.
Thanks again for your comment and your concern about highway safety.
Andrea Flatley
andrea.flatley@wsdot.wa.gov