Jan 16, 2004

A walking example

Work-zone accident victim spreads the word on the dangers of the job

Wilton Watson couldn’t feel his smokeless chewing
tobacco. After flying 35 ft into a highway ditch the lone missing sensation was
a blessing. It could have been worse--a lot worse.

On Nov. 13, 2002, Watson, then a superintendent for D.I.J.
Construction Inc., and his crew of six were in the beginning stages of a
pavement marking job on U.S. Highway 287 just south of Bowie, Texas. Two
attenuator trucks sheltered a work trailer on the right shoulder. Watson was
inside the first vehicle filling out paper work, while one of his workers,
Brock Phillips, worked on pulling out one of the machines used to dispense
bituminous for the pavement markers from the trailer.

Watson did not hear any screeching tires or crushing steel.
He did pick up the sound of someone’s voice, but by that time he was in
the grass, wondering what happened to his tobacco, and barely breathing.

“(Robert Arellano) told me, ‘You’re hurt.
Just stay down,’” Watson told Roads & Bridges. “I saw my truck and trailer and was wondering
what happened. I knew I was hurt but I didn’t know how badly. My last
memory was I was in my truck filling out paperwork. I still don’t know
where I was at the time of the accident, but I got hit in the process.”

A truck driver high on methamphetamine delivered glancing blows
to the two attenuator trucks then plowed into the work trailer. Phillips was
killed instantly. Another worker on the trailer setting up the arrow board
suffered severe burns after he was knocked off and covered with hot bituminous
mix. Three others suffered minor injuries.

The 35-ft plunge had Watson drifting in and out of
consciousness. He had four broken ribs, a punctured lung, a dislocated left
shoulder and wrist, a broken left humerus bone, three broken fingers on his
left hand (one was cracked twice and “skinned”), a laceration and
head injury, bruises on the left hip and back and cuts on his forehead and

But he was still alive, and still breathing.

“They never had to do mouth-to-mouth on me. I was just
lucky to be alive.”

Watson was transported to Wichita Falls for a weeklong stay
before he was moved to St. David’s in Austin. After surgeries on the left
hand and elbow, followed by rehab, the 52-year-old returned to work March 1,
2003. Today he almost has full range in his shoulder, but the elbow is still
misaligned and he can’t make a fist with his left hand. However, he can
still work as a field operations supervisor at D.I.J. Construction.

“I’m not going back out there,” he
proclaimed. “If I had to go out again I would have to retire real quick.
Luckily, the position (of field operations supervisor) opened up.”

But Watson, who also is the company’s safety officer,
is still often reminded of the horror of what can go wrong in a work zone.

“I worry more . . . a lot more,” he admitted.
“The first thing I say when a crew leaves the office is, ‘You be

The truck driver has a lot more time to think. He was
charged with vehicular manslaughter and is currently serving 10 years for the
death of Phillips.

“I’m one that kind of forgives and forgets, but
for a cause of death I don’t think it was justice served.”

But instead of dwelling on rage, Watson has fired up a
safety crusade. Before the accident very few workers at D.I.J.
Construction  had CPR training.
Now, knowing the procedure is a requirement. Watson teaches flagging to current
and new employees and uses his life-altering experience to grab and hold

“Early on I would train with my hand and wrist in a
sling,” he said. “I tell them. The first thing I say is it is a
dangerous job. Their eyes just light up in surprise. They ask me how I’m
still walking, how I’m still working.”

As far as relaying the same message over to the motorist,
Watson isn’t quite sure of the right approach.

“That vest is just like putting a target on you. When
I was out there on the job I worried about everybody on my crew. You
don’t want them stepping out when they shouldn’t, because you never
know in a split second what is going to happen.

“People just don’t know what can happen until
they’ve been put in this situation. I really don’t know what I can
say to (motorists). I wish there was a way to get each state to put the word
out on safety,” he said.

About the author

Bill Wilson is editor of Roads & Bridges.