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.