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.