Watch your back

April 2, 2018
Rear-vision cameras help improve safety in the work zone

About the author: Information provided by Intec Video Systems, Laguna Hills, Calif.


Work-zone safety efforts usually concentrate on keeping workers and traffic separate. Traffic control, signage and barriers are integral parts of every roadway construction project. Yet while highway construction workers are exposed to significant risks on the jobsite, motorist traffic is only half the problem.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) notes that over half of work-zone fatalities are inside the work area and do not involve motorists. Many of these workers are on foot in the work zone when killed by construction vehicles moving in reverse. According to Stephanie Pratt, co-author of the NIOSH study Building Safer Highway Work Zones, "the balance has definitely tipped toward non-motorist types of fatalities among workers. For example, you hear of backing-over incidents all the time involving dump trucks and other types of construction equipment inside the work area."

While visibility garments and back-up alarms can improve work-zone safety, they don't go far enough. An orange vest does not make a truck transparent. The driver still cannot see what's behind him. The following Fatality Assessment Causation Assessment (FACA) reports attest to that:

"A thirty-six-year-old construction inspector died when an asphalt dump truck backed over him. The decedent was wearing an orange reflective vest and hard hat at the time of the incident. The dump truck's backup alarm was operational and functioning properly. The driver of the truck stated that he never saw the decedent."

"A twenty-seven-year-old construction flag person died when a tractor-trailer dump truck backed over him. The decedent was wearing an orange reflective vest and hard hat at the time of the incident. The dump truck's back-up alarm was operational and functioning properly. The driver of the truck stated he looked into both of his tractor's side rear-view mirrors and did not see the decedent."

The Laborer's International Union of North America urges the use of collision avoidance technologies to prevent dump trucks, earthmovers and paving equipment from backing over people in work zones. Joseph Fowler, executive director of the Laborer's Health and Safety Fund, explained, "One of the largest causes of road construction fatalities is a worker being backed over by moving construction equipment. Many technologies currently exist to avoid these events, yet they are not widely in use in road construction."

A recent Department of Energy Safety Bulletin offered a solution: "Workers can become accustomed to the sound of backup alarms in construction sites, thereby reducing their effectiveness in controlling accidents. Concerns about continued hazards have led industry to develop supplementary control measures to warn of people or objects in the operator's obstructed view zone. Such measures include rear-viewing video cameras."

The Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) uses camera systems in surface mining operations in lieu of spotter personnel. OSHA and NIOSH standards do not make specific mention of this technology, yet both FACA reports mentioned above recommend "use of additional safety devices for heavy equipment to warn drivers when someone is in their blind spot." In testimony before Congress, Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary of MSHA, stated, "MSHA has shown that video cameras improve safety around these vehicles. We are continuing to urge mining operations to employ this and other technology to reduce the chances of blind-spot accidents."

The decision to install camera systems on haul trucks and mining shovels at the Cortez Gold Mines in Crescent Valley, Nev., was easy to make following a rash of backing incidents. Chris Chrestensen, mine trainer, said once a 300-ton-capacity mine truck or a similar-sized water truck backs over a pickup truck, investing in a camera system is a no-brainer. He researched other possible solutions, such as a sonar system, but decided a video system provided the best solution. Today the mining operation has 18 haul trucks, three water trucks, two P&H electric shovels, one hydraulic shovel and several wheel loaders wired with the camera system.

"If you prevent one serious injury, the cost of the video system is insignificant," Chrestensen said. "But when you also consider the impact an accident can have in downtime of equipment and lost production to conduct an investigation, it further validates the investment. The cameras just have a way of increasing the ease of operation and the efficiency of the job at hand. They improve safety by eliminating backing incidents, and I think it's because drivers are much more attentive. With a monitor in their cab, they really have no excuse for not knowing what's behind them."

Grader vision

Jose Mercado, fleet manager for the city of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., has been using rear-vision cameras on his vehicles for more than eight years. The system allows the operator to view on a small in-cab monitor what the wide-view camera picks up behind the vehicle. "A lot of people don't understand the dangers of being around this equipment. We put signs on the equipment telling them to stay back 100 ft, but you're always going to have somebody come up behind you," said Mercado. The 12 motor graders that clear snow from the city's streets each have a camera system. "Since we've put them on, we've dropped our accident rate of backing over vehicles down to zero. Prior to this we had accidents where a motor grader would actually back up over the hood of a vehicle." The waterproof, shock-resistant cameras have since been added to storm drain cleaners, loaders and heavy-duty trucks.

Kevin Bauwens, lead mechanic for Lake Tahoe's Public Works Department, said the video systems have reduced backing incidents significantly, even though motorists continue to challenge the potential danger of following too close. As for maintenance, the systems have proven to be quite reliable. "Even with the high vibration of the graders, there's very little maintenance that's required," he said.

"Operators have to wipe off the lens occasionally, but that's about it." Bauwens also has his service truck equipped with a camera system, which he finds useful when backing up to a piece of equipment that needs servicing out in the field. "The distance gauge printed on the monitor screen lets you know exactly how close you're getting to an object. That allows me to back right up to the equipment," he said.

Mike Pollock has worked behind the wheel of the department's grader fleet for more than 20 years, and he's experienced his share of hazardous road duty. For Pollock, the camera system has proved helpful numerous times. "I always use my mirrors and the camera when backing up, and the combination of both provides a pretty clear view of what's going on behind my grader," he said. "The camera system hasn't eliminated all accidents, but it's been very helpful."

The AGC Ready Mix Council also has begun using camera systems. Recent statistics show that roughly 90% of their accidents occur while a truck is backing up. Since the installation of cameras in the preliminary test trucks there have been no incidents reported by those who have the systems installed. The Ready Mix Council explored several options but came to the conclusion that camera systems would be the most effective for reducing and hopefully eliminating backup accidents.

There is no single solution to improving highway work-zone safety. Legislation, awareness and education all play a part in protecting the trucks and those who need to work around them. Rear-vision cameras offer a workable solution to construction backing accidents. Improved visibility, day and night, is available for construction environments right now, and cameras are being used with great success in comparable industries. 

From the driver's point of view, the best tool in the tool box is improved visibility. Eliminate the blind spot, and let the driver see for himself.

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