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The road construction industry reached an unfortunate milestone in 2016. More than 100 workers died at roadside construction sites for the first time in five years. It was just the second year since 2006 in which that many people lost their lives while working to expand, maintain and improve America’s street and highway infrastructure.

The data compiled in a 2018 report by The Center for Construction Research and Training makes it all too clear that ensuring the safety of the nation’s road workers must become paramount going forward. It is particularly important to place a greater focus on the workers who are on foot. Of the 532 roadside construction deaths between 2011 and 2016, approximately half of them (267) involved vehicles striking and killing pedestrians. The report includes a list of suggested solutions going forward, increasing visibility is at the top of that list. The subject of roadside visibility often overlooks a new technological development that can save lives and prevent injuries: wearable active warning lighting.

It has now been nearly a decade since the Federal Highway Administration beefed up visibility requirements. The 2009 version of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices requires anyone working on a federal aid roadway to wear an ANSI 107-compliant vest. There’s no doubt it helps to have the current requirements of high-visibility vests, fluorescent striping and retroreflective material on apparel or fire apparatus. However, the fact that road construction deaths increased every year between 2013 and 2016 is a distressing reminder that there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Illumination is the standard for emergency vehicles as no one thinks twice about whether they should be equipped with increasingly improved lights and sirens. When it comes to ensuring the visibility of individuals, though, the limitations of reflective vests and striping should raise questions about how modern technology could enhance the uniform through the application of modern lighting, just as it already does with emergency vehicles.

The reflective materials currently federally mandated are only designed to be seen from 1,280 feet away. A vehicle traveling at 65 mph can cover that distance in just 13 seconds. Furthermore, the effectiveness of high-visibility safety vests or other reflective materials depends on several conditions: The wearable reflective items must become illuminated at just the right angle and brightness, plus the driver must immediately see the worker and react quickly enough. At the same time, the technology now exists to provide individual roadside construction workers with wearable, affordable and portable lighting devices that drivers can see from as far as three miles away.

High-quality illumination should become an essential piece of roadside construction equipment no matter the time of day. While one’s initial thought might be that the need for increased visibility is particularly heightened at night, the CPWR report found that between 2011 and 2016, nearly 70% of all fatal road construction incidents occurred between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., and about 40% of the deadly incidents happened between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. From motorists who need to see work crews so they can move over or slow down, to crew members who need to see their fellow worker before backing up or lowering a heavy piece of equipment, roadside construction crews should be equipped with personal, wearable active warning lighting throughout the entire shift.

The greater context in which this increase in fatal incidents is occurring only adds urgency to the need to seek improved visibility solutions for roadside construction crews. It is fair and appropriate to ask if construction fatalities have simply increased because construction employment overall has grown. Between 2013 to 2016, the amount of construction jobs in the U.S. went from 9.3 million to 10.3 million, a 10.75% increase. During that same period, roadside construction deaths went from 72 to 103, a 43.05% increase. Construction fatalities overall increased from 856 in 2013 to 1,034 in 2016, a 20.8% increase. The rise in construction deaths far outpaced the growth of employment in the sector and that is especially true when isolating road construction.

Any attempts to address this troublesome trend must include efforts to maximize worker visibility. Knowing that effort must account for every hour of the day as well as a landscape of increasing speed limits and ever-tempting distractions for drivers, it is time to go beyond the current standard of reflective lighting. Modern illumination allows for both worksites and individual workers to be seen from further distances. As the industry seeks to continue the trend of employment growth, there should be similar vigor in ensuring a decrease in the number of workers losing their lives in roadside incidents. Active warning lighting allows the industry to see that it happens.

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