Highway Workers

Over the past 30 years, Chip Sterndahl has been the innocent target of curses, threats of beatings, and obscene gestures more times than he cares to remember. On one occasion, he was even deliberately swiped by a moving car. His crime? Working as a highway striper to make the California freeways and roads safer for motorists.

As acting national president of American Traffic Safety Services Association, Sterndahl wants to end such abuse by raising public awareness about the realities of highway construction and repair. “Workers aren’t out there as a plot to delay motorists,” he says, as if talking to his legions of tormentors. “They’re repairing something to improve the road. Have a little more patience for the work zone.”

As highway repairs on our country’s aging highway system increase, incidents of road rage have skyrocketed, Sterndahl says. The best advice he can offer workers who must regularly endure verbal abuse is to always try to follow his golden rule: “Avoid getting into verbal altercations.”

Sterndahl learned that the hard way — by dodging bottles flung at him by frustrated drivers. “Today’s work-zone worker needs to realize you have to ignore the threats. In today’s society, you never know what might happen. It doesn’t improve the situation to end up getting shot.”

Sterndahl’s crusade to educate the public does more than put the brakes on nasty treatment of highway workers: It may also save lives. Motorists who refuse to slow down as they approach a highway work zone pose a deadly threat to the defenseless employees who, in the course of a routine workday, brave traffic that can turn from chaotic to fatal in a few seconds.

More than 1,000 people are killed and 40,000 injured (including drivers) in US highway work zones each year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Work zone fatalities have increased 50 percent between 1997 and 2004. One of Sterndahl’s own crew members was killed in 1990 when a drunk driver plowed through a work zone at about 80 miles per hour.

Most fatalities and serious injuries in highway work zones result when motorists fail to respond to signs and posted warnings indicating they should slow down or come to a stop, according to Tom Marple of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).(Motorists distracted by cell phones or children arguing in the car may account for some of these incidents, experts say.) Some work-site accidents occur because workers stand too close to vehicles, wrongly assuming that drivers can see them, Marple says.

“I know of one fatality [in Kansas] where an employee went up to a large piece of equipment and stood in front of the wheel, and the driver started up and ran right over him,” Marple says. “He had been working less than a week.”

In recent years, funding for road and highway maintenance has increased. While this is good news for the transportation system, it can have ominous implications if road rage goes unchecked. “If people don’t take care and try to protect the workers, we’re likely to see an increase in fatalities,” he says.

In their ongoing efforts to educate the driving public, both Marple and Sterndahl suggest that training for new drivers include how to operate a vehicle in the proximity of a road work site. (They also recommend stiffer license renewal standards for older drivers.) National awareness campaigns are another way to convey the message that out on the freeway, orange-clad workers and orange cones mean “slow down.” An elementary grasp of color-coded signs is crucial, experts say. Finally, in an attempt to crack down on careless motorists, many states have greatly increased penalties for speeding through work zones, Marple says.

Take plenty of breaks

In addition to the ever-present danger of traffic accidents, highway workers are prone to heat stress, hearing problems, and occasional respiratory distress. Working on sites packed with roaring equipment can take a heavy toll on highway workers’ ears, according to James Baron, communications director of the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA). Toiling away on open roads in summer weather can subject workers to sunburn, dehydration, and overheating. “Workers need to be aware of the signs of heat stress so they can take steps to prevent them,” he says. Marple suggests drinking plenty of water and taking frequent short breaks.

Finally, overexposure to silica, caused by cutting concrete and sand blasting, can cause serious respiratory illness, Marple says. A study conducted by the University of Massachusetts demonstrated that along a significant stretch of Boston highway, workers were exposed to potentially hazardous levels of breathable dust and crystalline silica. “I’m not aware of any sampling that has been done for things like internal combustion engine exposure like that,” Marple says. “Employees are working out in the open and so the carbon dioxide is diluted.” (See A Roadmap for Safety for tips on how you can protect yourself.)

The limits of protection

The requirement that workers don bright reflective clothing is another dramatic improvement, especially for night shifts, Sterndahl says, and hard hats are getting stronger and lighter. “But let’s face it,” he adds. “If a semi comes blowing through, [protective clothing] will do nothing for that guy standing there.” In the final analysis, strenuous efforts to school the public in safety issues on the highways are going to be what save workers’ lives, says Baron. “It’s like anything, nobody really thinks about it until it’s brought to their attention,” he says. “You never think about a certain type of cancer until it’s brought up. A lot of people view highway workers as an inconvenience, but they should look at them as a service. They’re trying to save lives by building safer roads. People should respect that.”

Further Resources

American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA)

This international trade association represents more than 1,600 providers, manufacturers, consultants, and public agency personnel involved in the temporary traffic control industry.


Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)

Part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the FHWA provides countless policy, planning, and highway safety services to workers and motorists.


National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

Established in 1970 by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, NIOSH is a federal research agency that makes recommendations to help employers prevent job-related injuries and illnesses.


Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Part of the Department of Labor, OSHA develops and enforces safety and health regulations in the workplace.


To help protect highway workers, the Federal Highway Administration, American Road &Transportation Builders Association, and others have set up the:

National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse



National Work zone Awareness Week. Message to Motorists: Give Your Undivided Attention in Roadway Construction Zones, Transportation Developoment Foundation/American Road & Transportation Builders Association, press release, April 19, 2010.

Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Traffic Crashes by State and Work Zone (2009), workzonesafety.org. http://www.workzonesafety.org/crash_data/workzone_fatalities/2009

Burstyn I, Kromhout H, Boffetta P. Literature review of levels and determinants of exposure to potential carcinogens and other agents in the road construction industry. AIHAJ;61(5):715-26.

Blute NA, Wooskie SR. Exposure characterization for highway construction. Part I; Cut and cover and tunnel finish stages. Appl Occup Environ Hyg;14(9):632-41.

Federal Highway Administration. Work Zone Safety Facts and Statistics. http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/wz/wz_facts.htm

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