The place to be

Kathi Holst finds herself in natural surroundings as ATSSA's president-elect

The American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) may have finally put Kathi Holst in her place

The American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) may have finally put Kathi Holst in her place. Over the last 16 years, the president of Alternate Construction Controls Inc., Romeoville, Ill., has sat in just about every chair ATSSA has to offer. But her latest one as president-elect seems to be a natural fit. Holst has been surrounded by challenges since her first day in the male-dominated industry, and she’s ready to lead an association determined to make a difference.
Roads & Bridges was able to catch up with Holst to talk about her new role and agenda with ATSSA, as well as some of the barricades work-zone safety faces today.
How does it feel to be known as the "First Lady of ATSSA"?
It’s great. I don’t consider it any different than anything else I’ve done in this industry the last 20 years. I quite frankly think that other people recognize that much more than I recall. It doesn’t come to mind often for me but it does to people who are talking to me about it. I get asked that question quite a bit, and my answer is ‘It’s about time.’ If I have to be the first one, so be it. I know I won’t be the last.
What do you feel you bring to the association as president?
Certainly the experiences. But, more than that, I perhaps have experienced more challenges than others, if not only because of the fact that I’m female but because I come from the Chicago area which tends to be extremely competitive. High urban areas are faced with challenges that other areas aren’t necessarily facing. That along with the political environment of Illinois is, compared to other states, probably beneficial to me. I’ve worked at the local political level quite a bit over the last few years and, therefore, I have a feel for that kind of political arena. We have also had the benefits of Illinois FIRST which has provided us as an industry opportunities maybe other states have not been as fortunate to have. Implementations of certain devices or safety measures we would expect to see here as one of the frontrunner states.
What’s on your presidential agenda?
The thing that I hope to see during my term is a significant increase in ATSSA’s influence in government relations. I think, especially with reauthorization just around the corner, the time is right where we become a stronger voice for our own industry, and actually become the voice. I’d like to say by the end of my term we will not only be a voice but will truly be accepted as the voice for roadway infrastructure safety issues. I think that’s our expertise, that’s our arena, and I would like to see our association’s increased emphasis on government relations.
In addition to that, I would like to see a stronger impact at the local level through the strengthening of our chapter network. ATSSA currently has 19 chapters and some of them are very, very new. One of my emphases will be to formalize their activities so that they are not only uniform but that they actually reflect the strategic position of the national association.
What is the most important safety issue facing the industry today?
In my opinion, it all hinges on mobility. Because of massive amounts of congestion, mobility equals safety. The more congestion we have the less mobility we have and, therefore, the less safe are our roadways in temporary traffic control situations. I’d like to see the improved use of current technology, like ITS, to increase mobility. Our challenge is certainly still with us and will be for years to come to obtain adequate funding to increase lane miles. Without that significant increase we’re going to have to rely on technology to improve mobility.
Deaths per 100,000 work-zone workers stayed relatively flat between 1997 and 1999. How do you interpret this?
I think the impact of increased funding for construction is going to provide a challenge in itself to try to decrease that number. Obviously, the more construction zones we have the higher risk we run and the greater our challenge is to reduce that number. An increase in truck miles, an increase in older drivers, an increase in drivers period, increase in lane miles traveled . . . all those contribute to almost an offset of our improvement in safety measures. We can attribute the lack of increase as a success, but we still have a long way to go before we can look at each other and say we’ve arrived.
Do you think states are lax when it comes to monitoring work zones?
From my experiences traveling around the country for ATSSA in the last year, I think that in some cases in some states that is very, very true. I still believe there are a great number of states that continue to put safety last, and when budgets are squeezed and reduction in work force occurs with the highway agencies, like the DOTs, it tends to be one of the first things that goes. Designing construction zones and overseeing construction itself aren’t going to be the quickest to be eliminated compared to traffic inspectors. So more and more, I think our industry is going to have to rely on itself to police its own work zones to either maintain or improve the condition of them. When we’re all pinching the pennies, that in itself is something we’re going to have to kick ourselves real hard to do, and I’d like to know that it’s going to happen.
According to a recent International Safety Equipment Association survey, the reason workers fail to wear the proper safety attire or use the right safety equipment is lack of supervision. How should this problem be addressed?
That problem, especially in terms of lack of training, will continue to exist until the agencies themselves require training and certification. I think our industry needs to do everything it can to influence our highway agencies to take strides in that direction. Our industry does not perform 100% of traffic control protection, and therefore as long as there is a general contractor out there who chooses to do their own traffic control they don’t necessarily see the benefits of training. It’s a dollar-cost decision for them. Training may not necessarily be a cheap way to go but it certainly is the cheapest way to go in improving safety. A traffic worker out on the roadway who may not understand the benefits of high visibility garments simply hasn’t been trained to recognize those benefits. If our DOTs continue to take the position that they have in the past whereas they don’t require nor enforce training requirements we’re going to be faced with those dilemmas.
New Jersey has experienced success with local or state police inspecting work zones. What’s your stance on allowing the police to act as inspectors?
I’m all for inspection. However, I’m not naive enough to believe that we can ask some other agency like the state police to take on additional work when they themselves are already overburdened. I chaired the Road Safe Initiative here in Illinois, and one of the key players in this coalition was OSHA. OSHA’s intent originally was to ask the state police to become pseudo OSHA inspectors. As you can imagine, that was not met favorably by these other agencies. Not because they don’t see the need for safety, but how can we ask them to take on that additional set of responsibilities when they’re already trying to keep speeds down in work zones and try to recognize impaired drivers?
New Jersey does it, but in places like the Chicago area it would be difficult if not impossible to ask our state troopers to take that on.
At this year’s Traffic Expo, you suggested the Safety Committee lead a task force to examine an OSHA moving vehicles issue. Why?
OSHA has been very visible in construction projects, which I as an industry member fully support. Some of our members have been cited for workers working off the backs of trucks without a chair they could strap themselves into with a safety belt. I’ve been through this personally when somebody on one of my crews fell from the back of the truck. Our response to OSHA has been that if we require our workers to be strapped to the back of a truck we in essence are removing all of their ability to mitigate another hazard. Does that mean there isn’t a better way?
Not necessarily, but most of us take the position that strapping themselves to a truck is certainly not the best way to go. There was also a recommendation to provide workers with safety harnesses that they could use to attach themselves to the gates of the truck. In that case if a worker falls he could be dragged to his death. Our charge was to work as a task force to come up with perhaps solutions to that dilemma.
Is the labor shortage situation improving?
It’s hard for me to speak about the other areas on that specific issue. I think it’s improving in our area. We’re fortunate we’re in a populous region. I think the key is to attract qualified people, and that’s going to mean having the available resources to train them. It isn’t the way it used to be. We’re putting our workers out in very dangerous environments, so it isn’t enough anymore to attract bodies—we need to attract people who are willing and able to learn, and then we have to expend the resources to get them to that level of awareness.
Are you seeing more women in the work force?
At the worker level, I don’t see an increase and we desperately need women. Most of us work with federal goals anyway. In Illinois DOT contracts, 6.9% of our work force on the street has to be women. I hope I can help that situation. It’s hard work to find women. If you look at truck drivers as a pool, women sometimes have the wrong impression. They think they’re going to come here and get in the truck and drive it. In actuality, they are moving around 50-lb barricades and it’s heavy work for anybody. I think women are seeing this as an opportunity and more of them are trying it. And I do think that when they see more women as leaders in our industry I think they become believers.
What legislation would you like to see active on Capitol Hill?
The reauthorization of TEA-21 is first and foremost. I’d like to make sure the firewalls are maintained. I’d like to see a redistribution of the formula. Illinois was a donee state and now it’s a donor state. We used to get, for every dollar we donated, more than a dollar in return. In TEA-21 for every dollar we give we get 93 cents back. I really want to make sure the son of TEA-21 continues to make improvements in our program. And from a small business standpoint I’d like to see the inheritance tax taken care of.

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