Work Zone Safety in the Fast Lane

A study by Oxford University public health experts ranks road work as the 16th-most hazardous occupation in the UK. While the UK's roads have been becoming safer, overall injuries to road workers have risen. Dr Gareth Evans reports on the technology needed to put the brakes on this disturbing to trend.


With casualties now at their lowest in 40 years despite fast burgeoning volumes of traffic, injuries to road workers have risen against the otherwise falling national trend. According to the Highways Term Maintenance Association (HTMA), the industry body representing service providers responsible for nearly three quarters of the UK's road network - 2005 alone witnessed five deaths and 12 serious injuries - more than double the fatalities of any of the preceding five years.

Since then, although figures from the Highways Agency show that the annual number of deaths has fallen, the toll of non-fatal injuries has continued to climb, making keeping the workforce safe arguably the single greatest concern for the road maintenance sector today.

Technology premium

Although some of the potential dangers are much the same as those faced by counterparts in the wider construction industry, traffic clearly poses the largest direct threat. All of those deaths in 2005, for example, were the direct result of workers being hit by oncoming vehicles. The simplest way to protect them is, obviously, to ensure that the two never meet in the first place, but as transport safety consultant, Alan Jackson explains, that is seldom a viable solution in the real world.

"A two-year study in the Netherlands found that a road worker enters the 'no go' zone between the work area and live traffic an average of around 20 times an hour, and each time it's an added risk," Jackson said.

"A road worker enters the 'no go' zone between the work area and live traffic an average of around 20 times an hour."

"It's just not practical to close entire roads, much though that's the ideal solution - and that means there's a really high premium on good protection technologies."

Better barriers

A possible solution is the ongoing development of increasingly effective barriers, such as the latest wheeled version of Highway Care's BarrierGuard, which was unveiled at Traffex in March 2011. Its innovative design allows it to be easily moved by either a towing vehicle, or by manpower alone, overcoming the usual need for lifting gear during relocation and so avoiding both the typical delays and costs normally associated with repositioning barriers particularly for regular routine maintenance tasks.

According to Jackson, "that convenience factor makes it ideal when the rolling nature of the work means fairly short lengths of barrier repeatedly being moved small distances. But it'll probably be even more useful for quick deployment where access is limited - say in tunnels or underpasses. It could make a really big difference to worker safety there."

Braced for impact

For many tasks, impact protection vehicles (IPV) provide the primary physical protection barrier between workers and traffic. Although they are purpose designed to take the impact of an errant truck or car, the 'hit' often still results in injury - at times serious - to their drivers. Although these vehicles are well equipped to contain the force of any crash, even though the impact applies their automatic braking system, they can still move significantly, and thus propel their drivers forward.

Despite the low 'give' built-in to the conventional seat / harness arrangement, neck injuries - ranging from whiplash and disc damage, to nerve damage and even paralysis - are still a depressingly real possibility, but a revolutionary neck restraint recently developed by the HTMA safety forum may be about to change that.

Drawing on some high-tech ideas from formula 1, the team, led by Phillip Ross, senior IMS manager at Carillion, eventually produced a hybrid concept which optimises both safety and driver awareness, using a motor sport type neck brace, coupled with a lighter design helmet, like those used by skiers or mountain bikers.

"Impact protection vehicles (IPV) provide the primary physical protection barrier between workers and traffic."

According to Ross, "these helmets use lightweight carbon fibre material or plastic and give the same amount of surface area of protection as the heavier helmets. They also crucially allow for more visibility and hearing with larger cut-outs around the eyes and ears."

The new system, which utilises the interaction of the base of the helmet with the collar of the brace to limit the degree to which a driver's neck can stretch in any direction, has been well received by users and has already been adopted for M40 maintenance contract workers. It is currently undergoing on-the-job evaluation trials which are expected to run into the autumn, after which it could soon be playing a much wider role in cutting IPV operator injuries.

Dangerous behaviour

For those workers on the road itself, driver inattention and abuse remain serious issues, with most experiencing careless driving, verbal insults and thrown missiles at some point during their working lives. Countering this calls for the deterrence of effective enforcement, but in the challenging road works environment, this has often not been an easy thing to achieve.

A new application of a well established technology, CCTV, may hold some of the answer. As Steve Clayton, from Atkins' Somerset Highways commission and the man behind a novel design of camera-equipped stop / go boards, explains, the key is gathering good enough evidence for the police to be able to mount a prosecution. "The only alternative if this sort of dangerous behaviour continues may be to close roads in order to carry out works," he says.

Greater automation

While it would raise its own problems, simply reducing the time workers spend on the live carriageway has an obvious appeal, and it is reflected in the growing trend towards greater automation, particularly for tasks that routinely expose road workers to the risk of possible injury.

"For those workers on the road itself, driver inattention and abuse remain serious issues."

It is, however, still early days for much of the technology and despite the clear potential of machines capable of laying and retrieving cones automatically, for example, currently they have their limitations. In a recent five-month on-road trial, Jordan Product's Conemaster - a system built to automatically place road cones - performed well overall The Road Workers Safety Forum (RoWSaF) final report, however, concluded that it 'had difficulties completing large or complicated layouts, in particular those with multiple lane closures or entry and exit slipways'.

For the moment at least, that will remain a job to be done the old fashioned way - and with all the attendant risks.

Future research

Nevertheless, Jackson believes that technology improvements will ultimately result in safer conditions for road workers and that there are plenty of avenues for future research to make it happen. "There's a lot going on already, both here and abroad, across a whole swathe of fields. You've got software being developed to optimise road work layouts, people using simulators to model driver perspectives, nano-coatings to make things more visible - and sooner or later, it's all going to cascade down to the guy in the hi-vis jacket at the side of the road."

The bottom line, according to Jackson, is that the UK has some of the busiest roads in the world, "the working conditions on them aren't ideal and they probably can't ever be made to be, but technology is helping - and it's getting better all the time."