Prioritizing worker safety may have important implications on the DOT labor shortage

By Megan Link 

As projects ramp up, DOT staff are more important than ever. For many at the federal and state level, that means building capacity to administer federal funds; but for those on the ground, it means protecting workers from unsafe road conditions. Although traffic may increase, ensuring the safety and wellbeing of working crews—defined as vulnerable road users by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration—should be at the forefront of any project.  

WSDOT is taking unprecedented steps to protect its workers even if it is less convenient for drivers. Due to the high number of crashes near work zones, with most collisions at night, WSDOT is shifting more work to the daytime. Although they recognize this may disrupt drivers slightly more, the safety of workers remains their top concern. More work in daytime hours increases visibility for both workers and drivers, and reduces the risk of impaired driving due to alcohol or fatigue. WSDOT is also considering longer buffer strips in work zones, closing more lanes, and clumping multiple jobs together to reduce the number of times a worker is near traffic.  

Promoting a positive work environment—partly by prioritizing worker safety—may be a critical link to improving the historic labor shortage DOTs are facing. The labor shortage is not new: recruiting, training, and retaining skilled workers at all levels of government has proven to be a challenge for many years, but since COVID-19 it has reached striking levels. USDOT estimates it will need to hire and retain 1,700 people in 5 years with the skilled expertise to meet the robust project requirements set by IIJA. Without taking important steps to ensure worker safety and wellbeing, having enough employees to complete these projects will not be possible.  

Addressing the labor shortage becomes even more pressing after the recent Accelerating Infrastructure Summit. Topics included an action plan with the goal to move projects to completion even faster while staying on budget and on task. The plan outlines some measures to develop a lasting workforce while ensuring safety: a Call to Action for skilled workers, funding for equitable workforce development and training, and peer-to-peer grant recipient support programs. The IIJA also allocates funding for a safety contingency fund that can be used for projects to add more safety measures.  

According to Scott Earnest from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, There’s going to be a tremendous amount of work going on over the next eight to 10 years… It’s important when this work is done that it’s done safely.

Photo Credit: John Kakuk via Unsplash, unmodified. License