By Melanie Mesaros
On July 22, 2014, tragedy unfolded on Highway 320 in Echo, Ore., when an Oregon Department of Transportation crew was performing a chip seal operation.
"One of the managers called and told me he thought we lost Don," said Marilyn Holt, ODOT District 12 manager. "I just remember thinking, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'We backed over him.' I just remember standing there and felt like the whole world stopped turning for a minute."
Don Kendall, an ODOT maintenance crew veteran, was killed when a dump truck backed over him as he was raking crushed rock during the road project. The accident sent shock waves throughout the organization, deeply affecting others on the work crew that day, managers, and co-workers who thought of Kendall as a friend.
"Don was really a hard worker and prided himself as being the ground guy," said Holt. "Because of that, everyone knew him and he had been here almost 30 years. He worked with so many people."
Some 27 years ago, Holt started her career at ODOT in Ukiah and first worked with Kendall.
"He was the kind of guy who was everyone's friend," she said. "It wasn't just losing a co-worker."
ODOT Employee Safety Manager David Solomon said the chip seal process is one of the more dangerous projects crews perform because it is a moving operation, with multiple dump trucks backing up simultaneously.
"The tanker truck sprays hot oil, a chip spreader comes through and drops rock," he said. "As soon as one truck is empty, then the next one comes in, backing up the entire time. It's a delicate, complicated ballet. There are guys on the ground who are spreading the rocks, followed by the rollers. A lot of stuff is going on and with multiple pieces of equipment, plus traffic, there can be a lot of distractions."
Oregon OSHA Safety Enforcement Manager Gary Beck said Kendall's accident highlights the fact that people on the ground inside a work zone are the most at risk.
"Workers need to focus on what's going on around them at all times," said Beck. "You never want to place yourself between a moving piece of equipment and something else. Employers should also try to minimize the number of people on the ground."
Just like in passenger vehicles, newer models of loaders and ready-mix trucks are coming equipped with video cameras with in-vehicle display monitors. After testing, NIOSH has concluded that back-up cameras are helpful in giving operators a view of what is behind them.
"It's going to be commonplace in the near future for this equipment," said Lynn Gullickson, Northwest division safety manager for Knife River.
However, Gullickson cautions that the cameras aren't a fail-safe in preventing accidents.
"The cameras are a great aid that helps improve safety," he said. "But you still have to look and turn around and see with your direct eyes. We train our operators to use the technology as a tool in conjunction with actively looking around for possible hazards. Doing both of those together minimizes our risk, cuts down on accidents, and keeps our people safe."
According to statistics released by ODOT, more than one work zone crash happens each day in Oregon. ODOT cites the main causes of crashes in work zones as inattention, speeding, and driving too fast for conditions. While drivers need to do their part to slow down and pay attention, Beck said employers have more control over the hazards that exist on the other side of the cones.
"Controlling traffic outside the work zone is only part of the picture," he said. "It's just as important to pay attention to hazards inside the work zone."
Following the accident, ODOT examined how to prevent it from happening again. Solomon said they are exploring use of new technology such as back-up cameras and proximity alarms, and created a library of job hazard analyses (JHAs) for high-risk operations, including chip seal, paving, and tree falling.
"When an innovative hazard mitigation is discovered in one part of the state, it can be shared with crews who are doing similar work in other parts of the state," he said.
The accident has also led to some changes in the chip seal procedure for rakers. Rather than working in a position where they are exposed to backing hazards, rakers have now been moved to the back of the operation. The loss of Kendall prompted more communication about improvements, engaging workers at different levels, Solomon said.
"It was a catalyst for re-examining practices and there's been a lot of soul searching that's been going on," said Solomon. "It's opened the door to conversations about how we do things, how we plan projects and make priorities. For instance, we've been doing things a certain way, but is it the best way? It's unfortunate that it takes a tragedy to spur change, but that's really what I see happening here."
Holt said June will be the first time her district will perform a chip seal job since the accident.
"I want people to know that a year later, we are all still really hurt," she said. "We are never going to be the same. It changed how I feel about my job, and this job is my life. "
In light of the loss, Holt recalled a mantra well known to work crews: "Look twice. Think twice." It now has more meaning than ever before.
"We all feel a responsibly to keep each other safe," Holt said. "In this particular case, every one of us has had to ask ourselves the question if we did everything we could to prevent this accident." ▉
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