Friday, April 28, 2023

Multiple work zone crashes leave lasting effect on Adam Gonzales

By Tina Werner

Adam Gonzales has seen his fair share of work zone crashes.

Adam has been with our maintenance team out of Lakewood since 2016, repairing potholes and guardrails, cleaning catch basins, mowing and cleaning up litter and graffiti. An overnight shift in August 2022 was no different – at least at first. Adam was stationed in a truck mounted attenuator providing protection for paving crews ahead on Interstate 5 near exit 109 in Thurston County. Little did he know how important that protection would be.

Adam had taken all the necessary work zone precautions – his trucks lights and flashers were on, and all equipment was in place. Still, he kept checking his mirrors to see the traffic behind him and to keep a lookout for his surroundings on the busy interstate. That’s when he saw a driver behind him with their head all the way back, asleep, headed straight towards him and his crew.

“I knew she was asleep,” said Adam. “I honked my horn and immediately tried to move further off the shoulder than I already was.”

But it was too late.

Adam Gonzales, who has been struck in a work zone three times since 2018, tells his story
at our yearly Worker Memorial event in early April.

The driver struck Adam’s truck going more than 70 miles per hour. Adam’s head bashed into the truck’s steering column, causing a concussion. The Washington State Patrol cited the driver for negligence and endangerment. Adam said he’s fortunate to have survived, but he also said if he had not been there with the TMA as a buffer, his crew would have been killed.

“I knew I would have had to tell their loved ones they were gone,” Adam said of his crew. “I am just glad it was me who was struck and not them.”

This is just one of three times someone crashed into Adam in a closed state highway work zone. The first crashes were on State Route 512 in Pierce County while he was doing guardrail repairs in 2018 and again in 2019. The most recent was the I-5 crash in 2022 with the sleeping driver. All three crashes involved a drunk or distracted driver that enter a marked work zone and struck Adam and/or his crew.

So, it’s no wonder why Adam is such a strong advocate for safety in work zones.

“Each crash presents its own trauma, you know,” he said. “The concussions, the back pain, the ongoing injuries.”

Adam’s truck mounted attenuator was parked along the shoulder of southbound I-5 in Thurston County, providing protection for night crews doing pavement work when it was crashed into.
Fortunately, the truck – and Adam – did their job and kept the crew safe.

Safety is priority one

It’s a scary reality that our road crews can never let down their guard when on shift.  Their office isn’t in a cubicle or in an office building; they work just inches away from people traveling 60 miles per hour – or faster. Their lives are literally on the line and it’s rare to find someone who hasn’t had a near miss or injury.

And it’s not just physical injuries. Like many people involved in traumatic experiences, Adam still struggles with feelings of depression and anxiety after the crashes – and with the ability to “turn it off,” he said. He continues to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and regularly has flashbacks to the crashes. Far too many of our workers do.

“I am always on edge after being hit,” said Adam. “I constantly wonder if I am going to get hit again.”

Gov. Inslee named Adam Gonzales Washingtonian of the Day during our annual Worker Memorial event in Olympia in early April.

Another part of Adam’s continued recovery includes sensory deprivation tanks with 80 pounds of salt to help him relax and “shut it off” as he puts it.

“The crash itself is one thing – but the safety reports, the after care, is something else entirely,” he said.

The injuries were rough, but Adam noted how much he appreciated the Human Resources, Safety and Maintenance supervisors who all reached out and checked on him after his most recent crash. That spoke volumes.

“We are a family,” said Adam. “We all look out for each other.”

Improving work zone safety

Despite all we do as an agency, there’s always more work to improve safety – including reminding the public of their role in keeping both our crews and all travelers safe.

For our part, we’re making some work zone adjustments after seeing risky, dangerous and deadly driver behavior increase the past few years. Nationally, work zone crashes are on the rise; in Washington the overall number decreased but we’ve seen alarming increases in the numbers of serious injury and fatal work zone crashes. It’s vital to protect our crews, so we’re making some adjustments, such as closing more lanes during work, creating a longer work zone for additional buffer space or shifting some work from night to daytime when visibility is better and driver behavior is less risky.

Earlier this month, Gov. Jay Inslee also signed a bill authorizing automated speed enforcement cameras in work zones. During that ceremony Adam was declared Washingtonian of the Day by the Governor in recognition of his bravery and public service.

One of the displays near our headquarters building in Olympia during our Worker Memorial event displays 60 traffic barrels – one for each of our workers who have died in work zones since 1950.

Adding cameras to work zones is another step in improving work zone safety and one supported by our agency and our union and industry leaders. And by people like Adam – who says the new law is a great relief. We are in the early phases of designing the law and determining speed thresholds and fine structures, but the cameras will go live on July 1, 2024.

Help us keep Adam – and everyone – safe

Adam says he wants to go home at the end of his shift to see his family. Increased safety precautions help give him some peace of mind that will happen.

Probably the most important reason for Adam: his 11-year-old son, Jeffrey.

Adam’s son Jeffrey on a family trip. Adam says Jeffrey is his No. 1 priority and he wants to be able to hug him when he comes home
after every shift.

That’s why we’re also asking the public to help us keep themselves and road crews safe – we need everyone, every day to look out for themselves and others around them. One second’s distraction, one decision to drink and drive or simply going too fast and being reckless can have lasting effects on many others.

So please – for Adam, the rest of our crews and everyone traveling on our roads – do your part to slow the trend of serious crashes. Stay alert, slow down, secure loads and keep an extra eye out for everyone like Adam who is out there working to keep us all safe.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Work zone safety always top priority for father of two

By Doug Adamson

Starting a new job is tough enough. Imagine being on the job for two months when your work truck is hit by an inattentive driver.

Justen Merrick, based out of our Lakewood maintenance shop, was with a team working at night to repair the driving surface of Interstate 5 in Tumwater. Merrick was behind the wheel of a protective vehicle called a truck mounted attenuator or TMA. The rig helps protect his team members who work in front of the vehicle. That’s when he noticed a speeding vehicle coming up behind him. After flashing the TMA’s brake lights to no avail, Merrick hit the gas to try to lessen the impact. The oncoming car made no attempt to stop.

Justen Merrick, his wife Aleah, and their children
Tristen and Westlynn

Luckily, Justen escaped serious injury but was left with strains and sprains.

The scary and completely preventable situation didn’t stop Merrick. The Olympia resident and father of two children is back at work. He also is the chair of his local WSDOT safety committee.

“We appreciate when people pay attention and give us room,” Merrick said. “But we also regularly see so many people on their phone.”

Truck mounted attenuators help lessen the impact of a collision. After the collision,
they often can’t be salvaged.

He continues to be concerned about drivers who are not paying attention.

“Many don’t know what it is like to work alongside the highway as cars speed past you,” he said.

Our work trucks use these electronic reader boards to signal driver's need to be aware and alert.

Merrick would also like people to know about our pickup trucks with electronic reader boards. You'll see four lights activated in each corner. It’s our equivalent of a vehicle’s hazard lights. It serves as a heads up that we’re working in the area. Please remember to move over and slow down. It’s the law.

Also, we will pursue damages to drivers at fault for a collision. The average cost to repair the collision dampening system of a TMA averages $30,000.

It is an important reminder that people working on the highway are there to fix it. They deserve to go home at the end of their shift so they can be with their families.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Moving a ferry dock is all about the timing

By Joe McHale

It’s not very often that the Keller Ferry, M/V Sanpoil is taken out of service for maintenance. But when it is, public notice is key to limiting the surprise to those who use the 116-foot vessel to cross Lake Roosevelt between Lincoln and Ferry counties and continue their trek on State Route 21.

“The Keller Ferry is the lifeblood of that community,” Maintenance Superintendent Kurt Kaufman said. “People rely on that ferry.”

They do. Bus drivers, mail carriers, first responders, recreationalists and many others use the ferry daily. When it is out of service, the detour to the other side of the lake takes roughly an hour.

There are some occasions, however, that warrant a pause in service with little to no warning. High wind speed is the number one culprit. One of the other, more rare reasons, is because of what happened earlier in April: The north shore landing dock had to be relocated a half-mile up the Sanpoil River, a tributary of the Columbia River. Why? Because the level of Lake Roosevelt (a reservoir on the Columbia) was forecasted to drop to 1,238 feet, which is the minimum threshold for when it becomes unsafe or even impossible for the vessel to land at its usual spot.

The Keller Ferry pulls the north shore landing dock across Lake Roosevelt to
its alternative landing spot

Maintenance Supervisor and lead ferry engineer Steve Rosman said this is the first time we’ve moved the dock since 2018.

“It just depends on the snowpack and what the Bureau of Reclamations does with the lake level,” he said.

Lake water levels are controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation and are affected by snowpack, weather patterns and power generation needs of the nearby Grand Coulee Dam, and are not easily predictable on a long-term basis. Typically, the lake levels are between 1,240 and 1,290 feet. When the bureau lowers the lake level to 1,238 feet, the north shore dock runs out of ramp and must be relocated a short distance.

“At 1,238 feet there’s no more road there,” said Rosman. “It’s on the side of a rock cliff.”

Rosman and his eight-person crew who operate the ferry might know 24 hours in advance when the dock needs to move, 48 hours if they are lucky. That’s not a ton of time to let the public know, though we do what we can.

The usual route the Keller Ferry takes across Lake Roosevelt to connect to SR 21 (left) and the alternative north shore landing dock when the lake levels drop below 1,238 feet

The move

Timing has a lot to do with moving the dock.

After the school bus and mail carrier crossed Lake Roosevelt via the Keller Ferry, it was go time. The north shore landing dock needed to be relocated before the aforementioned precious cargo made their return trip in the afternoon. The ferry is a link to the north side and when it’s not available, it’s disruptive to the communities including school districts and mail delivery.

The Keller Ferry reaches the alternative north shore landing dock. Crews help the ferry pilot guide and secure the dock into position

At 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 12, the ferry was taken out of service so that crews could begin. First, they detached four cables from the four anchors on each side of the dock. Crews then carefully secured the 130-foot-long, 40-foot-wide terminal to the back of the ferry to pull it a half-mile up the Sanpoil River. Once the ferry’s pilot reached the temporary location for the dock, he swung it around and pushed the terminal until it aligned with the access road SR 21. Finally, the cables were secured to four anchors and the move was complete.

Sound easy? It’s not. It takes at least six crew members to complete the relocation. They communicate with the pilot, who Rosman says is his most experienced, via two-way radio to help guide the dock in place. It can also be physically demanding.

The north shore landing dock successfully relocated and anchored to
its alternative location

Despite all of the challenges that came with relocating the north shore landing terminal, Rosman’s crew was done by 11:30 a.m. and the ferry was back in service – two hours faster than he had hoped and planned for.

“That was a good move,” he said.

Rosman and his crew will make the landing dock relocation again in the next week or two when the bureau returns the lake levels to above 1,238 feet.

Lane reductions coming to eastbound I-90 in Preston/Issaquah area starting Sunday night, April 30

By Tom Pearce

We’re making progress on our Interstate 90 bridge repairs requiring multi-day lane reductions in the Issaquah/Preston area, and we’ll take a big step toward wrapping it up starting Sunday, April 30. That’s when one of our contractors starts two big lane reductions:

  • 10 p.m. Sunday, April 30, to 7 a.m. Wednesday, May 3, eastbound I-90 about a mile east of the Preston interchange will be reduced to one lane.
  • 10 p.m. Friday, May 5, to 5 a.m. Monday, May 8, westbound I-90 just east of the Highlands Drive Northeast interchange will be reduced to one lane.
Starting Sunday night, April 30, crews will begin repairs on eastbound I-90 at the location on the right. Starting Friday night, May 5, they start work on westbound I-90 at the leftmost location. Work on the westbound bridge between the High Point and Preston interchanges is complete.

Two more lane reductions that were planned for later in May have been postponed as another of our contractors gets materials needed for bridge deck repairs. We’ll let you know when those are rescheduled.

Early May work

The two scheduled closures will repair bridge decks that are in rough shape after years of heavy traffic and winter weather. Our contractor for this work came up with an innovative way to reduce the amount of time required to complete the work. Instead of two separate closures, they will leave the left lane open and work on the right lanes. When that part is finished, they’ll shift traffic to the right early Tuesday morning, then repair the left lanes.

Drivers on I-90 between Issaquah and North Bend are well aware of the deep gouges in several bridges.

They’re able to do this work with this schedule because they can do each half of the bridge in about 30 hours, or about 2½ days total for both sides.

Final bridge work delayed

Repairs on the last bridge on westbound I-90, about 3½ miles west of the Preston interchange, are being rescheduled because it may take longer than the pair of four-day lane reductions originally planned. This bridge deck has deep wear over long sections with exposed rebar, which helps hold the concrete together.

For this westbound work, we will need the better part of a week to do the left lanes, then several more days to do the right lanes. In addition to the repairs, this work requires concrete that needs nearly two days to cure. We’ll let you know as soon as we reschedule these repairs, most likely in June or July.

We hoped to finish up this work before the start of the summer vacation season. We will schedule the final westbound repair as soon as possible. In the meantime, thanks for your patience with all of our preservation projects.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Contractor employee says he’s counting the days until he gets injured

By Kris Olsen

One night last year, Ontonio Gaudio was descending in a mechanical lift after completing some overhead construction work on State Route 516 in the Kent/Des Moines area. He was nearly on the ground when he heard squealing tires. A vehicle was speeding through the closed work zone directly toward him.

“The squealing tires I heard were from my supervisor’s truck, trying to put his vehicle between me and the car,” Ontonio said.

The car stopped a foot away from the lift, but it wasn’t over. The speeding driver then jumped out of his car and threatened to shoot both Ontonio and his supervisor. Ontonio, adrenaline pumping from nearly being hit and then threatened, just wanted to de-escalate the situation. Although they called 911, the driver got back into his car and sped away.

That might have been the scariest incident Ontonio has encountered so far, but it’s not the only one.

“I’m counting the days until I get injured,” Ontonio said.

Every day, he watches traffic race by the construction zone at the Interstate 5/SR 516 interchange. Every day, he wonders if this is the day one of those vehicles is going to come barreling toward him or the crew he supervises as a foreman on the SR 509 completion project in South King County.

“People are honking horns, racing around each other, it’s bound to happen,” Ontonio said. “It doesn’t make me feel good.”

Ontonio Guadio listens to other SR 509 Completion Project crewmembers as they discuss that day’s work.

He does feel good about the work he does, proud of the people he works with as they solve complex problems, come up with new ideas and how they have each other’s backs. This job changed his life. Crew members are family.

Ontonio grew up in North Bend and started working in road construction seven years ago, following in his mom’s footsteps. Working safely around live traffic has been drilled into him since the beginning of his career. Sometimes, it’s not enough.

April is Work Zone Awareness month. Washington averages almost 626 highway work zones injuries each year – and most involve speeding drivers. Ontonio has witnessed this too often and knows more than one injured worker as a result.

Close calls

In March 2022, two drivers racing on I-5 near SR 516 clipped each other. One of the drivers lost control and skidded into the work zone. He collided with a construction worker standing next to her work truck, pinning her between the two vehicles. The force of the crash sent a fellow employee sitting in the work truck through the side window, breaking off the passenger side mirror. One of those workers remains in a wheelchair to this day, her life forever changed.

Just weeks ago, Ontonio was on the phone with a co-worker. They were both behind the concrete construction barrier on opposite sides of I-5 looking at each other when a car smashed into the barrier just feet from where Ontonio’s co-worker stood. Another close call.

“Every day we have people clip the barriers and pulling into our work zones,” Ontonio said. “People have no idea what we do out here and how hard it is.”

Safety first

As a foreman, Ontonio’s first responsibility is the safety of the crew. Every morning, the crew huddles up to talk about that day’s work and review the materials and equipment they’ll need. They always talk about the hazards they’ll face in the work zone. Traffic is at the top of the list. They talk about lessons learned from previous days and what they’ll do to reduce their risk. The crew is reminded to stay at least 3 feet away from the concrete barrier protecting the construction zone, because a 10,000 pound barrier will still move if a vehicle hits it at a high speed. Ontonio wants to go home safely at the end of each shift. He wants his entire crew to go home to their families, friends, pets, and hobbies (Ontonio is into cars, by the way).

Ontonio leads a crew meeting to review the work plans and safety.

“We’re regular people. We’re just like everybody else,” said Ontonio. “We’re here building roads, so people can get to their destinations safely. People don’t realize we’re doing it for them. Even though our work zones are set up above and beyond the current plans and standards, the threat of intrusions still occurs, and the threat is still real.”

You can help protect them

All of us have a role to play in making sure our construction and maintenance crews can go home at the end of each day:

  • 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.
  • Stay calm – expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible; no meeting or appointment is worth risking someone’s life.

Ontonio and all highway workers need you to help them, so they can continue improving our transportation system. Please do your part to help keep them safe. Ontonio depends on it.

Lots of work coming to SR 529 between Marysville and Everett in the next two years

By Tom Pearce

A busy couple years of work on State Route 529 in the Marysville-Everett area kicks into high gear this week as we reduce both directions of the highway to one lane between Ebey Slough and Interstate 5. We need to do this for our project to complete the SR 529/I-5 interchange. By fall 2024, we will add a northbound I-5 off-ramp to SR 529 and an SR 529 on-ramp to southbound I-5.

That’s going to take a lot of work, which will start with building a roundabout near the junction of northbound and southbound SR 529 near Ebey Slough. To create room for that roundabout, from 10 p.m. Thursday, April 27, to 4:30 a.m. Friday, April 28, we are planning to close both directions of SR 529 between Ebey Slough and I-5 to restripe the road and shift southbound traffic. This work is weather-dependent.

Southbound SR 529 will shift so crews can build a roundabout in the triangle between the current northbound and southbound lanes.

Once this shift is in place, we’ll do most of the work outside of the road. We still may have some lane closures or shifts, but most work won’t affect traffic.

As we build this roundabout, we’ll also start work on the ramps connecting I-5 and SR 529. The roundabout will create a junction that slows traffic and will provide an opportunity for people exiting northbound I-5 to turn onto southbound SR 529.

The new ramps will complete the SR 529/I-5 interchange.

When the new ramps open, they will make it easier for people to get into and out of Marysville. Currently people need to use the interchange at SR 528/Fourth Street and I-5, but a rail crossing about 1,000 feet west of the freeway often stops traffic on Fourth, creating backups that can reach onto I-5. When this project is complete, people still will be able to use this route, but they’ll have an alternative as well.

The new ramps connecting I-5 and SR 529 will provide an alternative for people using the freeway to avoid the rail crossing on Fourth Street.

Two more projects on the way

That’s just the first work people will see between Everett and Marysville. In early May we will put out a project for bids to repair and paint the northbound SR 529 Snohomish River Bridge and complete repairs on both of the SR 529 Steamboat Slough bridges.

This fall, we’ll seeks bids for a third project on SR 529, to repaint the southbound Steamboat Slough Bridge. Each of these projects is scheduled to finish in 2024.

We’ll share plenty more information about these projects as we get closer to the actual work.

Three projects in the same area?

While we’re going to have three big projects going at once on SR 529, we will tell you about them as if they were one. We understand most people don’t care that it’s three separate contracts; you just want to know what’s open and what’s not.

We do separate contracts in the same area sometimes because the work is different enough that it make sense. Repairing a steel bridge is different from building freeway ramps or just painting a steel bridge. By dividing up this work, we may attract a painting crew that doesn’t want to do heavy duty steel work, for example.

It’s all part of our effort to complete vital preservation work and highway improvements at the best value for the people of Washington. Thanks for your patience as we keep people moving.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Deactivating the 511 Phone Number – and tools to use instead to stay informed

By Lisa Walzl

Starting Friday, May 19, Washington state travelers will no longer be able to access automated statewide travel information by calling 511.

For the past 20 years, the 511 phone number has provided a way to receive traffic impacts, crash alerts, current and future weather forecasts, mountain pass conditions and ferry information (schedules, fares and wait times) as well as reversible-express lane status.

So, why is 511 going away? Simply put, new technology has led to a dramatic decrease in the number of people using the service.

Despite high call volumes in the early years of the program, during the past decade, the number has received a steady decrease in usage every year. In 2009 511 had more than 2.2 million calls but in 2022 that number fell to less than 302,000 calls – that’s an 86 percent decrease.

There are a number of likely reasons for the decline in calls – most of them due to new technology. As most of us know, smart phones, the internet and social media have changed our daily life and routines. We think tools like our app and travel map, social media platforms, third-party mapping services and GPS systems integrated into vehicles all have made travelers less likely to call 511. That means it’s not the valuable tool it once was for many travelers.

The 511 phone system is also expensive to operate, costing more than $150,000 a year in hard costs and requiring many staff hours to continually update travel information in the increasingly antiquated technology and to maintain signs about the program.

The steady decrease in use, antiquated technology and cost were the deciding factors in the decision to deactivate the 511 phone number. Once discontinued, these resources will be reallocated to more efficient and emerging information technologies to better serve Washington travelers.

Alternatives to the 511 automated information

While 511 is being discontinued, there still are many ways travelers in Washington can receive timely and accurate travel information, including our app, our website with real-time travel maps, social media accounts, electronic highway variable message signs and highway radio stations – as well as several private mapping apps for smartphones and integrated GPS systems in vehicles.

Travel tools include:

Travelers who do not have access to the internet/smart phone apps

While 511 is going away, there still are ways to get your travel information by landline phone. If you don’t have internet or smart phone access, you can contact us at the numbers below (you may also want to program some of these numbers into your phone or otherwise save them for easy reference):

  • Washington State Ferries’ information phone number 888-808-7977
  • Tolling information (Good To Go!) 866-936-8246
  • Amtrak Cascades 800-872-7245
  • Neighboring states 511 information
    Oregon 503-588-2941
    Idaho 888-432-7623
  • Local weather
    Seattle 206-526-6087
    Spokane 509-244-5992
  • Our Offices

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Work zone crash has lingering effect on contractor

By Angela Cochran

The brave people who work on our roads have a lot of stories to tell. Unfortunately, many of them are scary stories.

Anyone who has experienced a crash on a highway knows that traveling in a vehicle that weighs a literal ton or two can be dangerous – for the driver, the passengers, and anyone around them. Throw in an 80,000-pound semi-truck with a fully loaded trailer, and you have the potential for a catastrophic event. Now, imagine you are standing in the middle of Interstate 5, not protected by all the safety features of your vehicle – and it’s your job to be there.

Cindy Nelson, a traffic control supervisor for Granite Construction, has been involved in multiple work zone crashes that leave lingering affects.

Cindy Nelson is a traffic control supervisor with Granite Construction, one of our contractors. Her focus is to ensure the safety of the road crews and the traveling public in work zones. She has been doing this for 20 years on our highways. She usually works the night shift – she likes it, but said she notices people tend to drive faster that time of day. Cindy’s office is a work zone protected by a Truck Mounted Attenuator, or TMA. These TMAs are designed to cushion the blow of vehicles crashing into them and keep roadworkers from losing their lives.

It’s tough work, and an incident that happened several years ago still haunts her. She and her crew were working a Friday night shift setting up lane closures on I-5 in Shoreline near the King County line as part of a concrete panel replacement job. As she was pulling drums off a truck to mark the lane closure, a fully loaded semi struck the TMA that was there to protect her. Both trucks flew past her before she even knew what was happening. The TMA went forward on the shoulder. The semi went into the ditch, up the embankment, and crashed into the noise wall. Someone’s house was just behind the wall and could have been demolished if the wall hadn’t stopped it.

“Had we not had that TMA there, I would not be talking to you today,” she said.

Not surprisingly, Cindy took the next couple of nights off and even when she did return to work, she says she remained shaken by the incident for a while.

About a year later, Cindy experienced another near miss in her work zone. The details are astounding. It happened in 2016 when she was working on northbound I-5 in Mount Vernon near Starbird Road. The crew was in the middle of putting up signs for a single left-lane closure with a reduced speed limit of 55 mph. All of a sudden, she heard, “Cindy, I’ve been hit!” It was her TMA driver. A Toyota Tacoma truck had sped past all of the warning signs, zig zagging through traffic, and slammed into the TMA so hard it went under the TMA and hit the back dually wheels. Fortunately, the TMA driver had the instinct to steer away from Cindy’s truck, which was right in front of it, likely saving her life. The driver of the Toyota had to be cut out of the truck and airlifted to the hospital. The Washington State Patrol determined he was impaired at the time.

The Toyota truck (left) crashed through a work zone and into a truck mounted attenuator (right) that fortunately was in place to protect crews.

These crashes make Cindy wary and extra cautious. She praised her employer, Granite, for providing counseling services and what is called a “safety stand down” where the whole crew gets together and talks after an incident. Cindy said they have also added additional crew members as a safety precaution. Her crews work on a buddy system with one person acting as a lookout for dangerous drivers.

So what does Cindy want all of us to take away from these terrible experiences?

“When you see the orange signs, please slow down,” she said. “If it was your family member out there working, how would you feel? Slow down – we are just out there doing our jobs.”

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

He isn’t nameless or faceless: His name is Justin and he’s my brother

By RB McKeon

April marks an important month for us as we observe National Work Zone Awareness Week, which takes place April 17-21. We use this month to remind everyone why we need your help keeping our workers – and everyone on the road – safe in work zones. As a public information officer, I share a lot of safety messages about what to do anytime you're in or approaching a work zone. But in my role, I also see first-hand what can happen when people don't follow traffic control measures of the Move Over, Slow Down law.

Sometimes when we see safety campaign graphics they represent nameless, faceless people – so I want to take a minute to introduce you to my favorite Incident Response Team Member, Justin Backes – who also happens to be the best big brother a girl could have. Fun fact: we are six weeks apart and didn't meet until we were 9 years old when my dad married his mom. We grew up like twins – same age, same grade.

Justin Backes is an Incident Response Team member for us and RB McKeon is one of our public information officers. They are siblings and Work Zone Awareness month takes on special meaning for them.

As a member of our IRT, Justin works in King County, patrolling and helping disabled vehicles and drivers in need, responding to incidents on our state highways, coordinating traffic control with emergency response crews, removing debris and much more. This often means that he is outside of his truck as drivers whiz by without a second thought; however, if you are that driver in need, he is a welcome sight as he offers his assistance and provides a safe incident response zone.

In addition to being my big brother, Justin is also a husband to his high-school sweetheart, an amazing dad of three and a veteran (hoorah!). He is a coach, loves to BBQ, spends a lot of time working in the garage, attends as many school activities for the kiddos as he can, is an avid hockey fan (but he cheers for the wrong team) and without a doubt is the first to help out when you need it.

Justin and his high school sweetheart Rachael on their wedding day

Move over, slow down

The statistics say it all – nationally there's a collision in a work zone about every 5½ minutes. Last year in Washington, 1,192 collisions were reported in a work zone or in a work zone related back up. And, since 1950, our agency has had 60 workers killed on the job, the vast majority in marked work zones.

As a PIO, I watch our traffic cameras a lot and unfortunately, I often see erratic behavior in work zones which puts everyone at risk. Most work zone crashes are preventable. The top three reasons for these collisions are following too closely, excessive speed and distracted driving and inattention. And that is why we ask that when you see orange you adjust for work zone conditions. State law requires drivers to move over one lane, if possible, whenever passing emergency crews on the highway shoulder. This law applies to more than just law enforcement and fire trucks, it also includes our Incident Response trucks, highway maintenance vehicles, tow trucks, and solid waste and utility vehicles displaying flashing lights. Even if you can't move over, you can slow down and be alert.

While many work zone awareness graphics are just words and numbers, it’s important to remember that they represent real people working on the roads.

April is the month that we focus on work zone awareness – but for people like Justin, whose office is on our roadways, the real ask is that you focus on work zone awareness every time you are behind the wheel, all year long.

  • Slow Down – drive the posted speeds, they're there for your safety.
  • Be Kind – our workers are out there 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.

To some, these are just words. But to people like Justin, and to people like me who want Justin and all road workers to get home safely, they are a matter of life and death. So please take them seriously, because the people out there working to keep us all safe are more than just an orange vest and hard hat.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

High School to Highways program offers chance to jump-start career

By Aisha Dayal

After more than 12 years of taking the school bus, unappetizing school lunches and awkward school dances, you are finally a high school graduate. Congrats! As graduation celebrations come to an end, the pressure to figure out what to do next sets in. College? Travel? Get a job? There are a lot of things to consider.

Meet Matt Karcher, a recent participant in our High School to Highways program. His story includes several turns on the path that led him to our agency. Matt graduated from Sehome High School in Bellingham in 2017. After high school, he attended the University of Portland for two years before taking a year off to work. It was during this gap year that Matt learned about the High School to Highways program from a family member who saw it on our weekly newsletter.

Matt Karcher went from trying to figure out what to do after high school graduation to being a maintenance lead in our Whatcom County area after going through our High School to Highways program.

He was attracted to the program because of the professional development opportunities available through the agency, including trying different maintenance roles or even exploring different paths like operations, business management or engineering. Matt was also drawn to the program because it doesn't require years of experience and looks for eager candidates who demonstrate they are ready to learn and grow on the job.

Matt started the program in August 2021 and in just six short months he completed the training by obtaining his Commercial Driver's License permit (participants have up to one year to get their CDL permit). Only 1½ years after completing the program, he was promoted in February 2023 to a highway maintenance lead technician in Whatcom County. Matt enjoys maintenance because each day is different, there is a large variety of tasks he and his team complete. One day he can be out repairing potholes on Interstate5 in the morning and after lunch, be out on State Route 11 clearing trees and brush along the highway. The work is never done and there are always new opportunities to learn.

Maintenance lead Matt Karcher goes over plans with his crew before a job on SR 11 in Whatcom County

When starting the program, Matt was surprised about the hands-on and fast-paced learning environment, and how quickly he was thrown into the mix. He was out in the field on his third day helping with lane closures on the highway and picking up litter. He challenged himself to take initiative and learn different aspects of the job to learn and grow. It helps that Matt has been surrounded by experienced teammates who foster a supportive environment for training and learning. His team is always pushing each other to do better work and get more done.

From High School to Highways to meeting the Governor

Matt's passion and quick promotions with our agency caught the eye of our Human Resources leadership and he was asked to do a presentation to Governor Inslee as part of a Public Performance Review presentation allowing state agencies to share their efforts in workforce development. On March 22, he found himself sharing his story of how the High School to Highways program gave him a chance to start a career and grow into more responsibility while developing skills that could present him with even more opportunities. He said it was an honor to represent the agency and talk about the program.

Matt encourages other young adults to join the High School to Highways program to get their foot in the door where they can learn, grow and develop. He said this is a good, inclusive opportunity for people who might face financial barriers in their next steps after high school. Tuition assistance is another great benefit and Matt has taken advantage of that as well as he is pursuing a degree in Business Administration at Central Washington University.

Maintenance lead Matt Karcher (center) meets with Governor Inslee and Earl Key, Senior Director of Transportation Equity, after Matt told the Governor about his experience with the High School to Highways program.

So, are you interested?

Matt's story is one of many successes the High School to Highways program has had and we're excited to keep offering it to young adults as a way to dive straight into an exciting and rewarding career.

The program started in 2020 and is open to recent graduates aged 18-23 to join maintenance teams across the state. This isn't an internship; this is a full-time job with full benefits, salary and growth opportunities within the agency.

Matt Karcher and his team clear brush and debris on SR 11 in Bellingham

People who apply and are selected for an interview are then hired into a maintenance role with one of the six regions across the state. Participants in the program can expect to gain on-the-job training, crucial maintenance experience and obtain necessary credentials while being paired with a mentor or coach in the program.

People can apply through the link here. The deadline to apply is May 1.

Monday, April 3, 2023

April’s Work Zone Safety campaign highlights everyone’s role in keeping workers safe

By Madison Sehlke

When Clinton Holtcamp's work phone rings at 2 in the morning, an unnerving feeling hits him. The first thing that runs through his mind as a maintenance supervisor is, “Is my crew okay?” He holds his breath until he hears the answer. Usually, the news isn’t good – there might be a delay in their work or an issue with equipment – but hopefully it’s not tragic. As a maintenance supervisor in our Mount Vernon area, Clinton knows all too well the dangers he and his crews face on our roads every day. His crews have had to dodge vehicles barreling into work zones. Friends and co-workers of his have been hurt, some badly, when drivers crashed into their work site.

April is Work Zone Awareness Month. Throughout the month we will be sharing stories from our crews where they’ll talk about their experiences with work zone incidents, and we’ll remind the public what they can do to help keep road crews safe. Statewide, we average more than 100 vehicles or workers struck by drivers in work zones every year. The number of combined fatal or serious injury work zone crashes on our state roads increased 20.5% from 2021 to 2022, even though the number of total work zone crashes decreased by 12.5%. This is trending the wrong way.

Maintenance supervisor Clint Holtcamp takes a call from a crew member out in the field. Every time his phone rings, he knows there’s a chance a crew member has been involved in a work zone collision.

Not long after joining the WSDOT communications team, I learned what Clint meant when he talked about dangers our road crews face. At 5:45 a.m. on a dark November morning during my first on-call shift as a communicator, I received word from our Traffic Management Center that a member of our Incident Response Team assisting a stalled vehicle on the shoulder of I-90 near Issaquah had been struck by a driver moving too fast for conditions, lost control and hit our co-worker. A gut-wrenching call to receive no matter the time of day. Fortunately, our crew member made it out alive but it wouldn’t have taken much for this to have ended very differently. The more I talk with my colleagues who work along the roads, the more I’ve learned that many of them have been struck or had a close call or know someone who has been has been injured while working on our highways. People like Bobby Edwards.

Treat road workers like members of your family

Imagine you are planting tulips in your garden in your front yard alongside your family. Suddenly, a car plows through your front yard and you look up and see three of your family members flying through the air after being hit. This is what a work zone collision feels like, according to Bobby, another of our maintenance supervisors. Our crews become like family, and they have families. Their work matters, their safety matters, and their lives matters.

“Celebrities like attention and publicity, maintenance crews do not want attention,” he said. “We just want to do the work safely and to go home.”

Maintenance assistant superintendent Bobby Edwards has been with our agency for 17 years. In that time he’s handled innumerable instances of co-workers being involved in work zone incidents.

Our extended work family lives by a “Safety first” motto. Safety is paramount at our agency – whether it’s the safety of our crews, our contractors, first responders or the traveling public. Because of the increase in work zone related incidents, we have been working with our partners to make some changes in how and when we work. These changes may include:

  • Bundling multiple jobs into one to reduce the number of times our crews are exposed to traffic. For example, if we have a guardrail repair scheduled, we may also repair pavement or do litter/graffiti cleanup within the same work zone.
  • Creating a larger work zone. This may include taking an extra lane or lengthening the work zone to create a larger buffer.
  • Using additional safety equipment, such as temporary rumble strips or zipper barriers.
  • Doing more daytime work, when visibility is better and there are typically fewer major collisions.

You may have already seen some of these changes in action, while others, such as supporting legislation to create safer work zones, can take longer to implement.

A look at the trends in work zone crashes

Plan ahead and pay attention

So what would Clint like the public to know about keeping road workers safe?

“Pay attention to the change in traffic patterns to avoid wrecks, especially when crews are out working during peak times with high traffic volumes,” he said.

Change can be hard and any shifts in a traffic pattern can sometimes be stressful. Try to stay looped in to upcoming road work and follow detour signs.

“Plan multiple alternate routes and learn different ways to get home,” Clint said. “We tend to see some crazy stuff happen at road closures. People don’t give themselves enough time and then they make poor judgements and get angry with us when we prevent them for being in an area where they aren’t supposed to be while we are working.”

Clint, Bobby, and our crews aren’t the only ones at risk in work zones; almost 95% of people injured in work zone crashes are drivers, their passengers or nearby pedestrians. Most work zone collisions are avoidable. According to the Washington State Patrol, the top three reasons for work zone collisions in 2022 were following too closely, excessive speed and inattention/distracted driving.

What can you do to support worker safety? 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.
  • Stay Calm – expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible; no meeting or appointment is worth risking someone’s life.

Every worker has a life outside their job – they are parents, spouses, siblings, neighbors and friends. Their jobs often require them to work on busy highways, improving and maintaining our infrastructure. We want them to return home safely to their families at the end of each shift.

Despite the injuries, trauma, risks and near misses, they work hard to keep our roads safe. Our IRT driver who was hit during my first on-call shift wasn’t looking for accolades for helping out a stalled vehicle, he was just looking forward to feeling better and getting home. It’s up to us to make help by avoiding distractions like checking our phone, flossing teeth, applying mascara or driving just a little too tired. Every time you get behind the wheel remember to prepare, send a little gratitude for the workers and crews along the road and do what you can to help them go home safely.

We’ll observe National Work Zone Awareness Week (April 17-21) and you’ll see us participate in Go Orange Day on April 19. We invite you to follow us on social media where we will feature our crews and staff throughout the month as well as those of our partners who also play an important role in work zone awareness.