By Donna Campbell

Watch for the orange barrels and signs of construction in progress as you navigate during the summer months; it’s a matter of safety for construction workers and yourself. To learn the latest about work zone safety, I had the opportunity to speak with two experts from Travelers. Below is an excerpt from our conversation. 

MCS: How dangerous are work zones for construction workers, and what can be done to help keep them safe?

TIM MCGRATH: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatal crashes in work zones increased by 11% between 2018 and 2019, with 762 fatal crashes and 842 fatalities. 

While we saw lower volumes of roadway traffic in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, the danger did not decrease. In fact, late last year, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that work zone crashes and fatalities spiked in some states during the pandemic. For instance, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) found that by the end of August 2020, twice as many drivers had crashed into work zones as compared to the same time period in 2019. MoDOT also stated that distracted driving remained a leading contributor to work zone crashes.

In addition, the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) found that 60% of highway contractors experienced a motor vehicle crashing into their work zone over the past year.

These numbers are a sobering reminder that working near moving vehicles and other heavy equipment can create significant risk of injury and property damage. 

To help keep workers safe, one of the most effective steps a contractor can take is to slow traffic down whenever possible. This can be done by coordinating with state and local authorities to reduce the posted speed limit; engaging with local police to monitor traffic speeds; and using speed-indicating message boards that tell motorists how fast they are driving and warn them to slow down. 

Contractors can also provide “positive protection,” which are devices that contain and redirect vehicles to help reduce the risk of vehicle intrusion into a work zone. For example, mobile or concrete barriers and crash attenuator trucks or trailers can help separate workers from traffic. 

Technology is another way to keep workers safe. Intrusion alarms, for instance, can detect if a vehicle enters a work zone and then will initiate an audible alarm to alert workers to the danger. We are seeing an increase in the use of smart highway systems, including queue warning systems where sensors on barriers trigger variable-message boards when traffic begins to back up, warning drivers well in advance of the impending slowdown of traffic. 

Flaggers are important, too, since they can immediately notify their coworkers by blowing a whistle, honking a horn, or alerting them by some other method if there’s a vehicle coming. Carefully selecting and training traffic flaggers and providing them with high-visibility apparel and equipment are all crucial elements.

MCS: Why do these hazards increase during the summer months, and has the pandemic had any effect on this?

CHRIS HAYES: In the summer months, the amount of construction usually increases. This can result in lane closures and changes in traffic patterns for drivers to navigate. In addition, more people are vacationing during this time of year, increasing not only the levels of traffic but also the number of motorists driving on unfamiliar roadways. 

In summer we also see an increase in the number of hours construction workers are present on a jobsite, particularly in states with seasonal operations. There may also be more night work, which can contribute to the risks, as visibility decreases.

As we consider what effect the pandemic might have had, I think it’s worthwhile to look at how driving patterns changed. In the 2021 Travelers Risk Index, which looked at how COVID-19 and remote work affected roadways and risky driving, we found that the percentage of people who drive daily decreased from 63% before the pandemic to 47% today. 

While 24% of those surveyed thought roads are safer today than before the pandemic, many respondents reported engaging in dangerous behaviors while driving: 20% admitted to checking social media, up from 13% pre-pandemic; 19% said they took pictures and shot videos, an increase from 10% before the pandemic; and 17% said they shopped online while driving, up from 8% pre-pandemic.

The Travelers Risk Index also found that employees continue to feel the need to be reachable while driving during business hours, with 1-in-4 respondents saying they answered work-related calls and texts while behind the wheel.

All these distracting behaviors may have contributed in part to more hazardous roads last year. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), 2020 motor vehicle deaths were up 8% from 2019—the highest percentage increase in 13 years.

As we continue to weather the pandemic, we’ve seen traffic numbers surge back to pre-pandemic levels. More people feel comfortable traveling this summer than they did in 2020. And while construction did continue during the height of the pandemic, we are seeing an increase in the number of active projects across the country. With more work zones and drivers, there is greater risk of a crash.

MCS: Is distracted driving an issue for the construction industry in general and in roadside work zones?

CHRIS HAYES: Yes, distracted driving is an issue for both. 

Any company with employees who drive on the job is at risk of having a crash caused by a distracted worker, and the construction industry is not immune. Along with driving to and between jobsites and work zones, construction workers are also frequently behind the wheel, moving equipment, and materials. 

The 2021 Travelers Risk Index found that 64% of construction business executives worry some or a great deal about liability because of distracted driving, and 18% reported they’ve had an employee get into a collision while driving for work purposes due to distracted driving.

It’s important for contractors to train workers about the risks of distracted driving and safety best practices, and take the time to create and promote a clear distracted-driving policy that is regularly reviewed with employees and followed by managers.

TIM MCGRATH: Workers in a work zone are sometimes only a few feet away from traffic, putting them at risk of being struck by a distracted driver. Data from NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System shows that distracted driving is probably more of a significant factor in fatal work zone crashes than in non-work zone crashes. 


Having protections in place and training workers on safety protocols in work zones remain essential for minimizing risk.

For More Information:

Thanks to Chris Hayes, assistant vice president of workers compensation and transportation, risk control, and Tim McGrath, field director for risk control and construction, at Travelers, for sharing their expertise on work zone safety.

Modern Contractor Solutions, August 2021
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