Traffic control essential to safety

Tree service workers work under challenging situations everyday. When the work area is along a highway, the risk escalates. Hazards such as excess speed and narrow roadways can make low-traffic areas equally dangerous. In 2006, 15 Americans were killed in utility-related traffic accidents, along with 769 in construction situations and 109 in maintenance projects, making adequate traffic control a crucial element in a complete safety plan.

Learning from accidents

The New York State Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (NYS FACE) program evaluates fatal occupational accidents to help reduce the likelihood of similar future incidents. The research project is administered by the state department of health and doesn’t assess fault or legal liability.

The group investigated a 2004 incident in which a flagger working with a tree service firm was killed. Hired by a temporary employment agency, the flagger was engaged to help manage traffic while the tree workers trimmed trees and cut brush along a highway for a utility company.

The work zone, managed by the tree company’s foreman, was 300 feet long and required vehicular traffic to be limited to one lane of travel in both directions. The speed limit was 50 miles per hour. The foreman used safety cones to channel traffic and placed three warning signs ahead of the project on both ends. The flagger, who had completed training provided by the National Safety Council and had been certified for one month, was stationed about .5 mile away from the alerts. The temporary agency provided him with an ANSI-approved reflective vest and hard hat.

The incident occurred on a winter morning with good weather conditions. The victim was standing at the north end of the work zone in the closed southbound passing lane behind a line of traffic cones. He was directing the flow of the southbound traffic with a sign. The victim communicated visually with the other flagger at the south end of the work zone. Just prior to the accident, the southbound traffic was slowly approaching the work zone. According to witnesses, a pickup truck suddenly pulled out of the traffic into the closed passing lane. It passed several vehicles that had slowed down in the open driving lane and accelerated into the work zone. The victim ran towards the northbound lane to avoid the rapidly approaching truck. The New York State Patrol collision reconstruction report indicated that the truck began braking at this point, and then swerved into the northbound lane and struck the victim. The minimum speed of the vehicle was estimated at 58.2 miles per hour. The victim was thrown into the air and landed on the northbound shoulder approximately 30 feet from the collision point. Medical aid was summoned immediately, but he died two weeks later as a result of the injuries.

In tight work zones, the safety of both the crew and the public must be considered.

NYS FACE developed recommendations for avoiding future incidents of this nature. Law enforcement officers in marked vehicles equipped with radar could be stationed at each end of the work zone to help enforce speed limits. The group questioned maintaining the standard speed limit of 50 miles per hour, despite the reduction of the highway to one lane. They suggested that a lower speed would give both motorists and workers a longer response time in the event that dangerous situations develop.

NYS FACE recommended the use of additional signage and traffic control devices to supplement the minimum requirements established by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). Devices such as rumble strips, which provide a vibratory and audible warning, and speed bumps can be considered. Using signage indicating the distance in feet to the work zone and the flagger’s position was recommended.

New ruling clarifies responsibility

Who is fiscally responsible for providing those control devices and safety equipment? Late in 2007, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) announced its Final Rule on Temporary Traffic Control Devices. This regulation, which takes effect December 4, 2008, specifies payment arrangements for work zone safety gear. In addition, it requires federal aid recipients to develop quality guidelines for temporary traffic control devices.

The change involves a new portion, Subpart K, being added to the Code of Federal Regulations (Title 23, Section 630.1102). It is intended to reduce the likelihood of highway work zone fatalities and injuries to workers and road users. Some portions of the rule may affect tree service firms.

Policy makers make clear that costs of safety and traffic control devices “shall not be incidental to the contract, or included in payment for other items of work not related to traffic control and safety.” The ruling points out that some contractors have created advantageous bids by considering such expenses “incidental,” a practice that no longer will be tolerated. The complete rule may be reviewed in the Federal Register Volume 72, No. 233, pages 68,480 to 68,491( Consult with your state department of transportation for specific implementation policies in your area.

Uniform traffic control standards

With the announcement of this rule, the MUTCD, last revised in 2003, may factor in the regulation in future editions. Its current provisions for safety and traffic control consider the protection of both workers and travelers.

Accommodating the needs of pedestrians can be quite involved, given the range of persons who may use the work area. In addition, the standard requires accommodations for disabled users, in accordance with the Disabilities Act of 1990. In areas commonly used by disabled pedestrians, an engineering study will be required, as visually impaired persons, for example, may mandate special devices, such as auditory signaling of altered walkways. The temporary path must be appropriate for those using wheelchairs; uneven or soft terrain or lack of ramps or curbing may preclude wheelchair travel. The path should be a minimum of 60 inches wide; if that isn’t possible, a 60-by-60-inch passing space must be provided every 200 feet to allow individuals in wheelchairs to pass.

In any case, the guide recommends designing the traffic control plan so as to avoid pedestrians encountering conflict with the tree service operation and its equipment, as well as vehicular traffic. Maintaining the temporary footpath as close to the permanent route as possible is preferable. The need for protection from falling debris and/or vehicular traffic should be evaluated.

The firm’s safety officer should examine the work zone prior to beginning the job to assess the hazards and needs for overall worker protection. Employees should be trained in the use of all devices, equipment and safety apparel that will be used. High-visibility vests or other clothing and hard hats protect the workers from several risk factors.

In urban settings, traffic control is a top priority.

The Uniform Traffic Control Manual mentions additional measures that may be considered in challenging situations. If viable alternative routes are available, roadway closure during tree work eliminates all risks to the traveling public and protects workers from vehicular accidents. If closure isn’t possible, an array of special devices may be evaluated for use in dangerous work areas. Workers can be alerted to errant vehicles with intrusion warning devices. Changeable message boards and warning lights may also be considered.

The complete manual may be downloaded at

Jenan Jones Benson is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C. Contact her with your story ideas at