Approach work zone safety as if your own life is on the line

By Alan Farrington

As a young Construction Engineer working for the Kansas DOT back in 1987, I experienced a job site incident that would forever change my outlook on the importance of everything related to work zone safety and traffic control.
Contacted by the Kansas Highway Patrol at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I was informed that there had been a double fatality on one of my projects. I was asked to come to the project site immediately. With little detail provided, and not thinking of asking after having been woken up in the middle of the night, I got dressed and headed out. The project had only begun a few days before, so there wasn’t much of a chance for the traffic control signing and devices to have fallen into disrepair. Driving to the site, I wondered what could have happened.
The project involved the reconstruction of an urban 4-lane divided Interstate, so traffic was carried head-to-head on one half, separated by concrete safety barrier, while construction took place on other half. Soon after traffic was diverted to one side, construction began on the replacement of a large triple barrel concrete box culvert running under the half being reconstructed.
As I approached the sea of emergency vehicles’ flashing lights, I realized the incident was on the closed section of the roadway at the culvert excavation. The excavation was about 75 feet across at the top and 15 feet deep. There were three vehicles in the hole; two that appeared to have tried to stop and dropped in on the near side and a third that had almost made it across the excavation, crashing into the far side a few feet below grade. It was that third one that resulted in the fatalities.
As I was briefed by the KHP Sergeant as to the events that led them to find the vehicles and I inquired about the fatalities, he pointed to the ground. I saw that I was nearly standing on the body bag of one of the victims. The other had been taken by ambulance but expired shortly thereafter. I realized immediately this was REAL. The seriousness of the situation was reiterated in the hours and days after when I was bombarded with inquiries by the Highway Patrol, local media, national media, District staff, Headquarters staff and attorneys.
Because proper traffic control was in place, yet the unfortunate parties decided they’d have a little “fun” on the closed highway (alcohol was also a factor), this incident fortunately didn’t result in any law suits. However, the experience instilled vigilance in my approach to traffic control setup, maintenance, inspection and documentation that I’ve maintained ever since; even after leaving KDOT to work on the contracting side of the work. You can never idiot-proof every possible circumstance, but as long as you approach work zone safety as if your own life is on the line, you’re likely to give it a little more attention and thought.

Alan is with Wildcat Construction Co., Inc. in Wichita

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