Work zone traffic accidents are on the rise and are a serious concern for contractors.

Savvy contractors know that even a few simple steps can significantly reduce their exposure to accidents-all it takes is a little creativity and defensive thinking.

When it comes to worst-case scenarios, Barriere Construction has seen it all. The family-run construction company, based in New Orleans, LA, specializes in high-hazard work such as repaving interstate highways. Like many in the area, Barriere was hit last year by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Unlike many of its competitors, however, Barriere was ready for both the problems and the opportunities that a Category 4 hurricane brings, according to Brian J. Cooney, vice president, secretary and treasurer of Barriere. Right after the storm, the company arranged to have trailers, homes and apartments available for any of its employees who needed housing, most of whom returned to the area just a week after Katrina hit, ensuring Barriere's ability to handle the heavy workload that lay ahead. Barriere also had a communication backup plan in place and within five days had a trailer with twenty-five personal computers, a server and satellite dish so the office remained operable. A year later, the company has 90 percent of its operational workforce.


Anticipating disaster comes naturally to Barriere, which has built its reputation on putting the safety of its employees and the public first. Through a combination of corporate safety policy, work practices, training for employees and supervisors, pre-job planning and a motorist assistance program, Barriere has driven down its OSHA incident rates from an average of 3.57 in 2003 to 1.68 in 2005, with no lost-time accidents in 2005. Barriere's workers' compensation modifier is below 0.65, making the company's results 35 percent better than the construction industry average of 1.0.

Barriere's aggressive approach to work zone accidents is a direct response to a real problem on America's road worksites. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, a record 1,028 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in work zones in 2003, the most recent data measurement available. The Federal Highway Administration estimates the cost of these incidents at $2 billion in fatalities, $2.1 billion in injury crashes and $300 million in property damage.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration defines a "work zone" crash as an accident that occurs near highway construction, maintenance or utility work. The determination of whether a crash occurred in a work zone or not differs from state-to-state, due in large part to different definitions of a work zone.

Many work zone accidents involve:

  • A vehicle traveling at a high speed that comes upon stopped traffic without notice, or without noticing
  • A vehicle traveling at a high speed that does not appropriately slow in the work zone
  • A large truck-a substantial factor in crashes (with more than 22 percent of the work zone fatalities in 2003 involving large trucks)

Over the past several years, the insurance industry has taken a proactive approach to highway worker safety in traffic zones. During this time, the safety records of highway contractors have generally improved as companies like Barriere provide better employee training, safety equipment and safe work practices.

While these practices have helped reduce worker safety results, third-party liability arising from traffic accidents in and around work zones continue to increase, resulting in claims and large verdicts against highway contractors and their insurers. In many recent cases, injured parties claimed a contractor was negligent by contributing to an accident and in many cases, was liable for damages in excess of $100,000-some, in excess of $1 million.


In one example, a speeding driver veered off the road, re-entered, then hit an oncoming vehicle. Although the area was not in a work zone, the injured parties claimed the shoulder was too low on that part of the roadway because the contractor was using the area to access the material and equipment storage area. Despite the driver's excessive speed, poor vehicle control and the fact that the accident did not happen in a work zone, the contractor was held partially responsible because of his failure to maintain the shoulder and provide adequate signage to notify motorists of construction activities.

Companies like Barriere recognize that although some risks are out of their control, many work-site hazards can and should be addressed by the contractor. The company has an established program of individual duties involving each foreman, superintendent and project manager. At the corporate level, the program has oversight and management from a full-time safety director.

To prevent third-party accidents, Barriere's motorist assistance program (MAP) uses a dedicated work crew to assist motorists who break down, as well as off-duty Louisiana state troopers and area police officers to patrol work areas. These workers are on Barriere work sites around the clock to minimize hazards on the site and ensure that traffic keeps moving safely past the site.

To further prevent loss, the company encourages health screenings for all employees through its wellness program, uses leased equipment with a global positioning system and special sensing devices that indicate when a vehicle requires servicing, limits the number of hours a vehicle runs before servicing and reduces the number of vehicles in its fleet.

Some preventative measures recommended by the insurance industry include:

Coordination with local police-In some cases, such as with Barriere, police can help manage speed and direct traffic at the worksite. If not, contractors should request that police notify them immediately of any traffic accident, so that a timely and meaningful accident investigation can be made.

Public relations-Don't hide from the public: communicate. Explain the project, critical dates and time and suggest alternative routes. Barriere regularly informs area radio and television stations and newspapers to keep the public aware of work-site locations.

Motorist assistance programs-Some easily avoidable accidents involve disabled vehicles in the work zone. In areas with reduced or no shoulder, disabled vehicles become an immediate danger for other passing vehicles. A proactive contractor emergency assistance program could fix flat tires, provide gas, jump start stalled vehicles and get them out of harm's way.

Communication with the DOT-A productive, two-way relationship with the Department of Transportation (DOT) is critical for reducing traffic accidents. The contractor often is in the best position to recommend specific actions on the project to reduce the potential for claims. A good working relationship helps ensure that the DOT will seriously consider these recommendations and work with the contractor to eliminate obvious hazards.

Photos and video-Photograph and videotape your projects at the end of the workday and at the start of weekends and holidays. A simple video made from a pick-up truck driving the project site, capturing signs, noting safety precautions and reporting road and site conditions, can go a long way toward documenting vigilance on the part of the contractor.

Signs-Contractors should check that all required signs and optional signs are in place. Many accident claimants allege improper signs. It's much better to err on the side of caution.

Accident investigations-As soon as there is a traffic accident in the work zone, the contractor must perform an independent investigation. This may include hiring a professional, and in any event, it's critical to take photos and video of the crash scene to record weather conditions, document signs and note any other project or site condition that later may be brought into question.

Adopting these practices cannot only help reduce work zone accidents, they are also key for insurance underwriters determining which risks to quote and at what rate. Underwriters recognize that contractors with "best practice" operating procedures are safer making them a more attractive insurance risk and helping to mitigate increased insurance costs.

In addition to insurance costs, these practices have other significant financial benefits. The costs associated with a significant claim in the work zone in terms of investigations, project delays and legal actions can be much greater than up-front costs required to put in place a proactive accident prevention program.

Most important, work zone accident prevention programs save lives-reason alone for contractors to take them seriously. For companies like Barriere, safety is not something they do in addition to their work, it is how they approach and perform their work.

Construction Business Owner, November 2006