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News / Northwest

Work-zone crews face regular danger on Washington’s roads

On Tuesday, state will remember 61 WSDOT workers killed on job since 1950

By Craig Sailor, The News Tribune (Tacoma)
Published: March 29, 2024, 8:31pm

Adam Gonzales has one of the most dangerous offices in Washington.

The 49-year-old sits just a few feet from cars and semi-trucks speeding by him at up to 80 mph. The maintenance worker for the state Department of Transportation has been hit three times on the job and still suffers from lingering effects.

Compared with some of his co-workers, he’s been lucky.

“It’s devastating,” Gonzales said. “The guys are scarred for life.”

A crash near Vancouver in January sent six workers to hospitals.

“If it sounds like we’re angry …we’re angry,” WSDOT wrote on a Facebook post after the collision, which was caused by an impaired driver. “This happens all too often. The people working out on the roads are just that, people. They aren’t just vests and hard hats.”

On Tuesday, the state will remember the 61 WSDOT workers killed on the job since 1950 in a ceremony on the Capitol campus in Olympia. The most recent was Rodney Wheeler, who was killed in June.

It’s worse for the public

Despite the WSDOT employee and contractor injuries and deaths, it’s members of the public who make up the majority of casualties when motorists and work zones collide.

“Nearly 95 percent of people injured in work-zone crashes are drivers, their passengers or nearby pedestrians,” WSDOT spokesperson Christina Werner said.

While overall work-zone crashes decreased in 2023, the 1,228 wrecks that did occur statewide killed 10 people — twice as many compared to 2022, according to WSDOT. All of those deaths were drivers and their passengers who crashed into work zones.

In addition to those fatalities in work zones, 341 crashes resulted in minor injury, 28 crashes caused serious injury and 849 caused only property damage, according to WSDOT statistics.

Attenuators

Gonzales mans a large impact truck with an attenuator mounted on its rear. When the device is unfolded and extended, it turns the truck into essentially a giant bumper. The truck is parked between oncoming traffic and a work zone. It’s the work crew’s last line of defense, Gonzales said, and can protect between four and 12 workers.

Four crumpled attenuators sit in WSDOT’s Olympia maintenance yard. They look like crushed soda cans, barely recognizable compared with undamaged models. The fury and force of the collisions that smashed them are written in their bent struts and twisted sheet metal. It’s a force that would have been unleashed on human bodies had the trucks not worked as designed.

The costs

Motorists who destroy the attenuators — and other WSDOT equipment — must bear the $30,000 cost.

In 2023, WSDOT spent $630,981 to replace vehicles that were damaged by a third party. Another $220,821 was spent to repair equipment damaged by a third party.

“These can be our wing plows, graders, snow blowers, sweepers, traffic mounted attenuators, etc., where another party was at fault,” Werner said. “These two separate dollar amounts are when either a vehicle/truck or piece of equipment was damaged so badly it was not able to be repaired or not economically viable to be repaired.”

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Work zones

A driver has to work hard or be asleep at the wheel to miss seeing work zones on Washington’s highways. A good 1,500 feet before the work zone begins, drivers will see signs spaced 300 feet apart.

Messages are displayed on orange stand-up signs or on early warning vehicles with electronic messaging. They read “workers on the roadway,” “prepare to stop” and other messages. Nearby are orange and white striped barrels,

Following those signs is the impact truck and then the work zone another 50 feet beyond that.

Despite that, Gonzales estimates that not more than 20 percent of motorists slow down and move away from the workers when possible. Matt Beattie, Gonzales’ boss, said some drivers actually speed up to get ahead of other vehicles and merge into another lane.

Gonzales’ worst accident occurred near Lacey on Interstate 5 at Martin Way while his crew was performing night work in August 2022.

“I noticed in the mirror that this lady was coming at a high rate of speed,” he recalled. “Head back, asleep. And so I just I laid on the horn, looked back in the mirror, and it was already entirely too late.”

Gonzales was thrust into the truck’s dashboard, steering wheel and windshield. He doesn’t think he lost consciousness, but he remembers little of the moments that followed.

Gonzales suffered a concussion, neck strain, shoulder injury and headaches. What’s lasted the longest are his post-traumatic stress injuries.

“I’ve got headaches, anxieties, real bad, real horrible,” he said. Now, when he’s in his impact truck, his eyes are glued to his mirrors. When he sleeps, he wakes from dreams of vehicles bearing down on him.

So, why does he still work for WSDOT?

“I love my job,” he responds quickly. “I’m really good at it. I am providing something for the traveling public, providing them a safe way to get to work, a safe way to get home, to get to their loved ones.”

The ‘office’

Beattie said the 200 employees who make up crews in WSDOT’s Olympic Region are like family units. He’s had several of his employees seriously injured. He asks the motoring public to put themselves in his workers’ shoes.

“Imagine what it would be like to not feel safe in your office anymore,” he said. “Every set of headlights presents a potential risk or potential strike to that truck that you’re operating.”

Beattie himself was standing 6 feet from an attenuator on state Route 16 in Gig Harbor when it was struck by a vehicle in a work zone.

“I saw the plastic and the glass go everywhere,” he recalled.

Sometimes, workers like Gonzales will stand behind their fellow workers who are right on the edge of traffic. They keep their hands on co-workers’ vests, ready to yank them to safety should an errant driver get too close.

“It means a ton to have people with that type of courage,” Beattie said.

Transportation departments across the state ask drivers to maintain distance, slow down and pay attention, especially with the busy summer construction season ahead.

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