Monday, January 23, 2023

A new approach to winter guardrail repair

By April Leigh

When it comes to winter maintenance needs on state highways, the words “weather dependent” take on a whole new meaning. Starting in November, when road crews split into day and night shifts, they balance their time between responding to severe weather events and tackling maintenance needs.

Even for the most skilled professionals, it’s a race to get all the work done. Especially when it comes to the repair and replacement of guardrail on state highways.

Guardrail is a critical safety component of the state highway system. It’s used in areas where leaving the road presents a significant hazard to travelers. For example, you will often see it placed in areas with steep slopes. It’s also used as a barrier to protect things near the road from getting hit. It’s very good at doing its job but unfortunately repairs are needed regularly because of crashes.

Crews removing nuts and bolts from damaged guardrail before
replacing it on SR 161 at Edgewood Hill

“We prioritize the most important repairs and complete as much as possible during the winter. But with split shifts and weather, it can get very tough to manage,” said Michael Gauger, one of our maintenance superintendents.

Challenges keeping up with guardrail work led Gauger to propose a new idea this year. Why not keep some of the seasonal staff hired to help keep up with summer work like paving, and teach them winter guardrail maintenance? It makes sense, given they’re already training in safety and traffic control and other procedures.

To the untrained eye, repairing and replacing guardrail may seem like a straightforward task. However, the work takes time and skill. Maintenance teams need to know how to fix and replace the rails, posts, connections to the posts, end terminals, and the anchors. It’s a lot to learn.

Crews pulling damaged guardrail posts anchored to the ground
alongside SR 161 at Edgewood Hill

This winter Gauger was given the go-ahead to carry over seven seasonal employees from the summer to focus on guardrail work in the Tacoma area. The team, trained by senior maintenance workers, have made a big difference in the amount of guardrail work getting done this season. Since November, the crew completed guardrail projects at more than 40 different locations, with more locations scheduled for work through April.

“We’ve been hearing from local folks, they are happy we’re fixing things and praising the crew for doing the work,” Gauger said.

Panels of new guardrail are installed at SR 161 at Edgewood Hill

We’ve also integrated the guardrail team into multi-crew work on roads with high traffic volumes, allowing crews to do several types of maintenance jobs in a single closure while limiting effects to travelers. For example, if there’s a guardrail repair job, we’ll also try to tackle things like vegetation management, clearing storm drains or fixing signs in the same area at the same time.

“Every job the crew is doing is one that probably would not have Agot done otherwise this winter,” Gauger said. “In the end, we’re all better for it.”