How to plan for a road construction emergency

Road construction emergency planning and management is a difficult juggling act for a health and safety officer. Here is a case study.

Similar risks apply to road improvement, road maintenance, and street infrastructure, writes Rudy Maritz. Our first priority is to ensure the safety of road workers, while allowing traffic flow, reduction of travelling speed (traffic calming) and the safety of road users.

This requires a detailed traffic management plan, but not every detail could be planned in advance.

One of the common risks in roadworks is underground services, involving high voltage cables and high pressure water lines.

Road construction emergency case study

A contractor had to install a new underground cable in the sidewalk near a hospital. The road was feeding from a main route and curved down a blind bend into the hospital parking area.

Traffic flowed in both directions. The traffic management plan required minimal interference with the normal flow of traffic, and only a few minor road signs were required.

Everything went well until they accidentally hit a 300mm main water line. Within an hour, the trench turned into a hole in the road at the entrance to the parking area.

Water flowed under the pavement and caused a sinkhole on the opposite side of the road and further downhill.

The flow washed away the sub-base layer under the pavement and caused the left lane to sag into a 600mm ditch.

The water was shut off by the local authority about four hours after the incident was reported to their emergency service team.

The traffic plan now was ineffective, as one lane had to be closed within minutes to prevent possible head-on collisions, or drivers crashing into the gaping holes on both sides of the road.

A driver, whose wife was in the hospital, forced his way into oncoming traffic, hitting the construction supervisor on the leg, crashing through the delineators at the Road Closed signage.

As the oncoming traffic came down, he drove onto the sidewalk, almost smashing into the fence next to the road, where his 4×4 got stuck.

It took 10 minutes to clear the mess, where it could have been three minutes to accommodate him as a supposed emergency driver. Sometimes obnoxious is equal to an emergency. This case study offers some lessons on planning for the unplanned.

Road construction emergency planning has to provide for a range of incidents, including service lines, irate drivers, and emergency response vehicles.
Road construction emergency planning has to provide for a range of incidents, including service lines, irate drivers, and emergency response vehicles. (Photo; Windsor Star)

Road works emergency response plan

Include storm water and service water management in your plan. Water is extremely powerful and could wash away anything, including pavement, road works, cars, trucks buildings. Locate the shut-off valves and keep the required tools on site.

Much the same applies to electricity service lines.

Keep signage handy, with enough clean orange flags and trained traffic controllers on site to initiate stop-go traffic control, then convert to proper signage and sturdy barriers. Water drums may be useful.

Keep an emergency vehicle on site to block off any roads that require sudden closure to minimise traffic flow.

Keep a suitably trained and attired person available to communicate with road users and direct them to an alternative route.

Keep a medical team on stand-by.

Perform a risk assessment of alternative traffic routes, and consider closing some roads to reduce the flow of vehicles into the controlled zone.

Consider high risk road users such as trucks, long-haul vehicles, priority road users such as ambulances, fire trucks, and public transport, in selecting which direction of traffic must be given priority.

Inform the traffic department in advance of a potential emergency traffic control zone, and ask for their assistance in redirecting traffic. On private roads, such as shopping malls, the traffic department cannot intervene of their own accord.

Prepare custom signage, such as Road Closed, use entrance at 3rd Street”, or “Warning! Oncoming traffic in this lane! Proceed with Extreme Caution!”

Plan a detailed traffic signage layout and practice a dry run before the work team get on site.

Consider nearby traffic intersections, to prevent causing down-stream traffic obstructions.

Notify radio stations of road closures, and keep their numbers handy.

Take photographs often, also before you leave the site at night, using the date and time stamp. Photograph vehicles, drivers and people disobeying temporary road signs. Consider placing a security guard with the traffic controller.

Brief everyone to stay calm while they may be insulted and even assaulted by drivers.

Establish and practice a chain of command, that may be identical to the work team line management structure.

The work site may change as work progresses, and the buffer or emergency zone may change depending on events.

Road works should be considered emergency operations from the start, with the emergency manager in overall command, and not doubling as the works engineer or occupational health and safety practitioner.

Some of these lessons apply also to static construction sites.

• Rudy Maritz is an executive partner at Cygma Consulting. He writes on in his personal capacity.

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3 thoughts on “How to plan for a road construction emergency

  1. About this scenario; “Traffic flowed in both directions. The traffic management plan required minimal interference with the normal flow of traffic, and only a few minor road signs were required”.
    Aye, and there’s the rub! Perhaps discussions between Client, Agent and Contractor would have produced a plan that served H&S better than the one tabled. Having worked in road construction for a number of years, I know just how difficult it is to work under traffic. Drivers rarely obey speed limits and generally ignore flagpersons so one’s H&S plan needs to accommodate such vagaries, and Clients need to accept that a little inconvenience could save a lot of embarrassment in the long run.

  2. Most road works on side walks require minimal signage as too much signage only confuses motorists. Most do not even know which side of a delineator they have to pass. Roads engineers do not want signs in the road way and often you work far from the curb. In these cases only four signs are required on both ends. The workzone is indicated by delineators.
    It is understandable that in these circumstances a sudden “Lane drop” would not have been catered for “under normal traffic” conditions.
    I think the recommendations are valid and should be planned for, but as Richard also said, “CLIENTS” need to accept the additional costs for “just in case” we need extra signage. And that will happen when the ANC no longer rules the country, and we know when that will be according to JZ.

  3. Good info indeed, but i think the government needs to do something as well as i see no safety officers in most of their road projects, where they see to it that this things are in place and in order.

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