Thursday, April 29, 2021

Planning for the unexpected: When it comes to work zone safety, that’s just part of the job

By Victoria Miller

When you work on one of the largest highway construction projects in the state, both in terms of dollars and project area, you learn to plan for the unexpected.

Chris Cooper is a construction manager on our I-405 Renton to Bellevue Widening and Express Toll Lanes Project. The Tacoma native worked in construction in the South Pacific and Canada before moving back to the Seattle area about four years ago.

Chris has worked as a construction manager for Flatiron West, Inc., for almost five years. He’s worked on projects all across the state, including the State Route 520 West Approach Bridge North, the Lander Street Project in downtown Seattle and seismic retrofitting on I-5 in Tacoma.
Chris Cooper, a construction manager on our I-405 Renton to Bellevue project, has seen more than his fair share of dangerous work zone incidents while working on our highways.

With all his experience, Chris knows it’s important to expect the unexpected. Planning for the unexpected may sound almost impossible, but when safety is your number one priority, it is a necessity. 

“When you have vehicles moving so fast so close to the work zone, you stretch yourself to think about all aspects of the situation,” Chris said. “How can you go that extra mile to make sure you have a system to protect the public and your employees?”

Close calls that cause your heart to skip a beat

Close calls and injuries are an unfortunate fact of life for many highway workers. The one that stands out in Chris’s mind was a near miss that happened during a project on SR 520. 

A driver followed a dump truck into a ramp closure area and sped up to more than 60 mph, causing the vehicle to hit the median barrier. Four nearby workers could have been injured, or even killed. Just before almost hitting the workers, the driver’s vehicle glanced off an empty work trailer crews had parked next to the work zone. This caused the vehicle to careen by the workers instead of through them. Had the trailer not been parked where it was, the incident could have ended fatally. As a result, Chris’s crew now parks equipment directly between live traffic and the active work zone.

“When you’re working with live traffic, there’s an incredible amount of interactions with the public that are close calls, or incidents that cause your heart to skip a beat,” he said. “It’s crazy how some of these incidents can be. … You try to plan for every contingency.”
Away from work, Chris likes spending time outdoors with his family, including a 2018 hike at Mt. Catherine near Snoqualmie Pass.

Do your part

Almost 95 percent of people injured in work zone crashes on Washington highways are drivers, their passengers or pedestrians, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to be safe and alert in and around work zones.

We ask all drivers near work zones to:
  • Slow Down – Drive the posted speeds, they're there for your safety.
  • Be Kind – Our workers are helping to keep you safe and improve the roadways.
  • Pay Attention – Both to workers directing you and surrounding traffic; put down your phone when behind the wheel.
  • Stay Calm – Expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible; no meeting or appointment is worth risking someone’s life.
Making it home each night

Chris has many reasons to make it home safely at the end of each day.

The most important is spending time with his wife of 16 years, Deah, and his two sons, Ben (age 14) and Gavin (9). He also enjoys riding his snowmobile and fly-fishing.

In his free time, Chris also gives back to his community by coaching the Cascade Orienteering Club, which is competitive navigation using a map and compass outdoors. He coaches elementary, middle and high school orienteering club teams in the Tahoma area.
Going home to his family safely each night so they can enjoy time together – like this 2019 trip to Disneyland – is priority No. 1 for Chris.

He also loves his job, even with the risks.

“We love working for the public and producing something that you’re proud to walk home from at the end of the day,” he said.

Next time you’re driving near a work zone, please think about the people behind the barriers like Chris. Remember that they are trying to protect you as well as their employees and that they want everyone to make it home safely at the end of each day.

The Renton to Bellevue project construction will continue to ramp up this summer. Ongoing work will be focused in the Renton area of I-405 and work, overall, will continue for the next few years, with the project anticipated to open to traffic in 2024. Stay up to date on closures and upcoming night work on our I-405 construction updates webpage and our Renton to Bellevue project webpage.