Machines may make traffic control safer in some situations

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by Peter Caulfield

B.C. construction leaders are looking for ways to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities to the roughly 5,000 flaggers, or TCPs (traffic control persons), on construction projects around the province.
Machines may make traffic control safer in some situations

B.C. construction leaders are looking for ways to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities to the roughly 5,000 flaggers, or TCPs (traffic control persons), on construction projects around the province.

There were 17 incidents of flaggers being struck by vehicles or mobile equipment that resulted in claims for short or long-term disability as well as fatalities in 2011, according to WorkSafeBC.

Grant McMillan, president of the Council of Construction Associations, said that although the incident numbers aren’t large, they have a great impact on the workers where the incident took place and on the industry as a whole.

“Because the other workers talk and think about it, a single accident can have a serious affect on morale and productivity,” he said.

“According to the police reports I’ve read and stories in the Journal (of Commerce), the main culprit is high-speed, reckless driving.”

One solution to the problem might be to use more mechanized traffic controls (MTCs), such as portable traffic lights and message boards, said Mike McKenna, executive director, B.C. Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA).

The BCCSA is responsible for training and certifying flaggers in the province.

By the end of August 2012, the BCCSA had certified just more than 20,000 flaggers.

McKenna, whose organization recently started to research the idea of replacing some TCPs with machines, said both flaggers and drivers will benefit.

“Flaggers will no longer be in harm’s way,” he said.

“And, drivers will be guided by large signs that are hard to miss.”

Although some flaggers would lose their jobs, McKenna said there will be other road and off-road construction projects in the province that require TCPs.

McKenna said the idea should be tested first in a pilot project with WorkSafeBC because there might need to be revisions in the regulations to allow for MTCs.

According to WorkSafeBC regulations, McKenna said, flaggers are to be used to control traffic “only as a last resort.”

MTCs are used more in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Washington State than in B.C., said Phil Jackman, president of Valley Traffic Systems Inc. in Langley.

“I’ve never seen flaggers (in those jurisdictions),” he said.

Tammy Sampson, co-founder of the B.C. Flagging Association, said portable traffic systems will work in some situations and keep flaggers out of harm’s way.

“Unfortunately, a portable unit does not know when equipment and pedestrians need access to travel portions of the roadway,” she said

“Therefore, I suspect TCPs will be needed in our future. WorkSafeBC already has regulations in place to keep TCPs to the sides of roadways, when not directing traffic. Ultimately, better public awareness is key and stiffer penalties will get the message through.”

McMillan said several steps could be taken immediately to mitigate the risks to flaggers.

“First, enforcement by the RCMP and other police forces has to be consistent and rigorous,” he said.

“Speeders need to be fined and the double fines that are advertised for construction zones need to be given the force of law. I applaud the provincial government’s recent commitment to take steps to do just that. Other jurisdictions have imposed significant, behavior-changing fines and B.C. can do the same.”

In addition, police cars could be parked in front of construction zones, as a deterrent to speeders.

“This technique is used in construction zones in some American states and it works to create a new respect for speed limits,” McMillan said.

Two construction association executives said the problem of flagger injuries and fatalities needs to be seen in its full context.

Keith Sashaw, president of the Vancouver Regional Construction Association, said risks to flaggers have been increasing because there is more roadwork taking place and because there is more traffic on the roads.

Jack Davidson, president of the B.C. Road Builders and Heavy Construction Association, said that injuries to flaggers are not always the fault of inattentive drivers.

“Flaggers can get lax sometimes,” Davidson said

“They must stay 100 per cent focused on the job at all times and be aware of all the possible hazards they face. Unfortunately, staying focused all the time is hard to do.”

The occupational health and safety authority’s incident descriptions give a glimpse into what has happened recently to flaggers.

“Carrying traffic signs on the sidewalk, a cyclist hit & threw wkr into a telephone pole... A loose tie-down cable with metal clip of a flat bed truck drove by & hit wkr in construction zone... Worker was hit by a truck towing a horse trailer, worker was knocked from feet and landed on back and head.”

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