Concerted efforts are being made by the industry to improve the safety of maintenance workers at roadworks.
A recent increase in the number of serious and fatal incidents involving vehicles passing through roadworks and highway maintenance workers has led to introduction of a series of initiatives to improve safety.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is producing guidelines designed to enhance the safety of road workers and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has set up a new alliance to raise awareness of occupational road risk.
HSE figures show that the number of roadside workers killed by vehicles on or around works sites has increased markedly. Provisional data for 2000/01 shows that five workers were killed while carrying out road repairs, surfacing and maintenance and one died while carrying out verge maintenance.
These six deaths represent a threefold increase compared with figures for each of the previous three years. In addition, between 10 and 14 highway workers sustain major injuries each year while working within the road environment.
A spokesman for the HSE confirmed that guidelines will be published this year. Over the past few months, meetings have been held with a number of contractors, the Highways Agency and other representative bodies including the CSS and research body TRL to discuss the content.
'We have covered a lot a ground, ' said the spokesman.
'We have identified areas of good practice and started to address a number of problems.
'Safety has always been high on the agenda but because of a spate of recent incidents, we felt the issue needed to be looked at very closely, ' he continued. 'We are trying to establish an understanding of the minimum standards of safety required on sites and we will also be looking at more specific issues such as procurement, training and methods of work.'
Recent work by RoSPA to raise awareness of occupational road safety is another example of good practice which it is hoped will help improve the safety of road maintenance workers. This April it brought together representatives from 40 organisations to agree to the setting up of an Occupational Road Safety Alliance. A steering group of 21 people, including a representative from the Engineering Employers' Federation, will carry the initiative forward.
RoSPA's occupational safety adviser Roger Bibbings said that many accidents on road maintenance sites have their roots in poor safety planning. 'Good safety is a question of proper risk assessment planning, good supervision, wearing the right clothing and learning from near misses and incidents that have occurred, ' he said.
Crucial to this is the proper and honest reporting of incidents. Bridget Fidler, policy development manager at the Construction Industry Council, said: 'We are trying to encourage road maintenance workers to speak up if an incident or near miss has occurred. 'That way we can pinpoint areas of safety practice which need to be looked at more closely.'
RoSPA's Roger Bibbings added that fast flowing traffic around a highway maintenance site should be as well managed as possible. 'The most fundamental aspect of ensuring safety is the effective separation of people and moving traffic. If that is not possible, traffic speeds must be effectively controlled, ' he said.
However, despite their efforts, there is only so much that contractors can do. Brian Downes, contract services director of construction materials firm Aggregate Industries UK, says: 'Safety of our employees while at work is paramount. Nonetheless, the biggest risk to our highway workers is the one over which we have the least control - speeding motorists. Many of our clients now make regular use of speed cameras within highways works to try and keep traffic speeds below restricted speed limits.'
According to the Highways Agency, the standard speed limit imposed on motorways where road maintenance is being carried out is 50mph, but on sites where there are more complex works, the speed limit can be reduced to, 40mph, as was done recently on a section of the M6 near Birmingham.
RMC Surfacing Southern's Richard Butterfield says that a recent highway maintenance scheme on the M11 in Essex proved the effectiveness of a mandatory 40mph speed limit. It not only improved safety, he said, but increased workforce morale. 'During the contract, there were no serious accidents.
Essex Police worked in conjunction with the Highways Agency to enforce the lower speed limit through the use of more than 20 cameras. Hopefully the effectiveness of this approach will be recognised and adopted on a nationwide basis, ' said Butterfield.
Mike Garnham, the Highways Agency divisional director for traffic, safety and the environment says that safety at highway sites is the responsibility of everyone. 'Contractors have a responsibility for their employers, but drivers also have a part to play in driving safely through roadworks. A significant number of accidents are caused by cars or lorries entering a works zone, so we are working with the HSE and others to try and pilot innovative new safety methods on a number of trunk roads in the UK.'
Such pilots may include a warning system that sets off an alarm should a vehicle hit traffic cones, giving workers on site a few extra seconds notice of a stray vehicle, and a mechanised French system which picks up traffic cones, avoiding the need for maintenance workers to pick them up manually.