Collaborative efforts taking shape for planning safer work zones

IMG_0792With the relatively mild winter we’ve had, you’ve likely already encountered work zones on Iowa roads. With National Work Zone Safety Awareness Week kicking off today, here's more information about how we work with our partners to plan safer work zones for everyone.  

At the end of last year, we convened our third Work Zone Information Sharing Workshop. The two-day meeting brought together not just Iowa DOT management, central office, and field forces, but our partners in law enforcement, academia, motor carriers, traffic control contractors, the traffic management center, and Federal Highway Administration officials.

Breaking down barriers and sharing information

Dan Willy Brian
Iowa DOTers Dan Sprengeler, Willy Sorenson and Brian Worrel team up to make Iowa work zones safer and more efficient.

Dan Sprengeler, one of the Iowa DOT’s lead engineers in work zone design, said, “This was the third time we have held this meeting. Initially, we wanted to get together to break down the barriers in communication between the field and the central office. But over time, the meeting has grown and the outcome has been to open up a lot of avenues to share ideas, celebrate successes, and work through issues.”

Safety First, one of our core values, was the overarching theme of all the discussions. Brian Worrel, our work zone operations engineer in the Construction and Materials Bureau, said, “I think it was important for our DOT leadership to be present and hear directly from the boots on the ground, especially as it relates to policies that are in place and what they could mean for safety and consistency in work zones across the state.”

But many participants brought up another safety hazard that we can’t control, motorists who are speeding or not paying attention.  Worrel said, “There was a lot of great discussion, but I think the conversation with the Iowa State Patrol about increased enforcement and what we can do with lighted signs and potentially with digital speed limits to get drivers’ attention was very productive.”

Discussing shortfalls and celebrating successes

The workshop allowed for frank discussions on improvements that can be made, specifically to pavement marking and signage in work zones. Successes were noted in the use of speed feedback trailers to alert motorists if they are going too fast. Other successes were noted in the use of:

Work zone design – getting in on the ground floor of a project

Skylar at podium
Skylar Knickerbocker from the Institute for Transportation at Iowa State University discusses new work zone technology with the group.

The setup of a work zone can have a significant impact on how safe it is. Setting up the safest possible work zone takes a great deal of planning. Traditionally this planning effort was not initiated until the design of the construction project was complete. During this workshop, field forces and design engineers came together to explore ways to incorporate the work zone set up earlier in the design process, potentially increasing safety and efficiency.

The group discussed how larger projects often have elaborate and well-thought-out work zone set-up plans, but they identified a need to focus on planning for smaller projects that tend to have less cohesive planning.

There was an extended discussion on traffic control planning and implementation. Discussions included what’s working, helping contractors understand the essential connection between traffic control an safety, how technology might be utilized, and the need to review policies and procedures. The discussion on policies and procedures dove into more details on:

  • general work zone training
  • extra enforcement
  • flagger training
  • traffic control
  • work zone set-up

New tools on the horizon

Training is a key element for employees in a work zone, but on-site training can be dangerous and only allows for a limited number of scenarios to be covered that are specific to that work zone. As part of this workshop, staff from the University of Missouri shared the innovative way they are using virtual reality to train workers. Not only does this method take the training out of harm’s way, it allows for a myriad of scenarios to be played out.

Another safety tool being studied is the use of digital speed signs that can be changed depending on conditions. When workers are present the speed can be reduced and then restored to higher speeds when there are no workers on site.

Pulling all the data together

A key component of helping us improve our work and make safer decisions is the use of data. Recently developed dashboards have been deployed to help keep staff up to date with things like performance measures, emergency incident notifications, traffic incident management, and much more.

 “There was a lot of information packed into this workshop,” said Sprengeler. “We have extensive notes from the discussion and our work zone team will be reviewing all of that information, making recommendations to the field, and updating documentation such as policies and procedures to improve safety.”

This workshop highlights how working together to share our experiences and knowledge we can greatly increase the chances that you and those that work on our roads get home safely at the end of each day.

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