Columns / Surveyor Safety

Safety Sense

October 30, 2006
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The importance of traffic safety in the surveying profession cannot be overemphasized. At every seminar I present, I always devote as much time as possible to information from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) and OSHA requirements for traffic safety.

I have had many surveyors ask me for a simple diagram showing exactly how to place signs and other protective devices when working in the roadway. The MUTCD contains many diagrams, but no two situations are alike and no one diagram will work in every circumstance. The important point is that crew members must learn the basic parameters of traffic control so they can make informed decisions in a variety of jobsite situations.

Incorporating traffic safety devices while surveying is similar to conducting an accurate survey: it is necessary to present all information in a clear and concise matter in order for everyone involved to understand what is being conveyed.

I recently witnessed a construction crew who did just the opposite of this and inaccurately displayed its traffic safety devices. The construction site was in a downtown setting and encompassed an entire city block with underground work on two adjoining streets. The excavation contractor spent quite a bit of money to have a traffic safety equipment supplier bring out flashing arrow boards, signs, barricades and cones. As I walked around the site, I heard vehicles honking their horns close to one of the street work zones. When I approached the area, I realized that even though two arrow boards were present along with dozens of barrels and cones, the safety equipment had been set up to close only one lane, yet the crew had closed two lanes. This situation proves that utilizing all of the safety equipment in the world won't make a difference if crews aren't taught to think through the basics of safety and apply them each and every time.

Figure 1. Highway scenario with winter sunset.

Close to Home

As I have written about before in this column, my wife Sandee and I frequently travel on business throughout the United States, and have enjoyed the opportunity to see much of the country up close. Many of my observations on safety are made while on our trips. However, just like motor vehicle accidents, most of my outrageous safety stories come from incidents close to home.

Several years ago I was on my way home from a day of knocking on doors to make cold sales calls. I was looking forward to getting home and becoming a couch potato for the evening. It was late in the day during the winter, and the sun was just a few degrees above the horizon. I was driving westbound and had been fighting the bright winter sunset directly in my eyes for about half an hour. The road was a two-lane state highway with wide berms. For the most part, the road was level, but there was an occasional "hump" in the road. (See Figure 1.) My speed was right on the double nickel.

As I approached one of the humps, nothing seemed unusual until I had almost reached the highest portion of it. With the sun in my eyes, the visor down and my left hand held up to block more sunlight, I noticed movement in the center of the roadway. I quickly hit my brakes and started to swerve to the right, but saw a vehicle just off the roadway. I quickly re-adjusted and went straight, hoping that I wouldn't hit the person who was in the center of the roadway. After what seemed like an eternity (actually about two seconds) I looked into my rearview mirror and saw a surveyor standing in the middle of the roadway. I noticed another survey crew member on the righthand side of the road about 200 feet away. The first worker was wearing clothing that blended in with the road. With the sun in my eyes, I didn't distinguish the human figure until it was almost too late. Had the sun not been in my eyes, I would probably have seen the person at least several hundred feet away.

What basic elements were forgotten during that day's surveying activities? There were no signs, no flashing lights, no cones, no barricades and no high visibility vests or other protective clothing. Everything about the situation was wrong. I was fortunate that I wasn't involved in a fatal accident and the surveyor was lucky to live to see another day.

Figure 2. Highway scenario with hilly landscape.

Special Conditions

Another situation occurred a few weeks ago when Sandee and I were headed into town for dinner. (See Figure 2 for an illustration of this scenario.) We were on a two-lane state highway headed west. I was going 55 mph. Sunlight didn't affect my vision in this case because it was several hours before sunset. However, due to the hilly landscape, it was difficult to see very far ahead. At a certain point on the road, we entered a small valley with an overpass bridge for a major interstate highway. As we started to go up the other side of the hill and approach the top, I saw someone standing in the middle of the roadway about 50 feet in front of me. I hit my brakes and again pulled to the right. This time there wasn't anything in the area just off the roadway, so I had plenty of room to swerve. Again, no basics of traffic safety were applied to this situation. What was a normal day of work for this surveyor could have been his last day on earth!

While the MUTCD does give sample setups for traffic control, both of these situations required workers to use their heads and think about special conditions that existed. Even though the mobile work conditions of the MUTCD allow one to be in the roadway without signage in some cases, both of these situations would dictate that additional precautions needed to be taken and additional traffic control personnel or signage be used.

There were many options for added safety devices in both cases. The crews could have used signs and flashing lights on a vehicle, or flaggers along with signs, or a combination of both. Applying safety principles depends on traffic and the prevailing conditions of the site. That is why it is important for all crew members to understand the basics of traffic safety so they can make informed decisions in every situation they encounter.

The Rest of the Story

The irony of these two experiences lies in the rest of the story behind the incidents. The surveyor in both of these two scenarios was the same person. I recognized the individual from meeting him in his office quite a few years ago during one of my cold sales calls. I remember his words very clearly from that day long ago. He told me, "I don't need any safety program. I have worked a lot of years at this job and I know how to work safe and keep my employees safe!"

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