By: Thomas H. Welby Published: March 2016

Preventing Backover Accidents

A major subset of “struck-by” injuries in construction is “backover” injuries, which occur when a backing vehicle strikes a worker or bystander who is walking, standing, or kneeling behind the vehicle — most often in the vehicle’s “blind spot.”

While vehicles passing at highway speeds are a well-recognized hazard, backover incidents occurring behind the barricades in the work zone cause as many, if not more, fatalities on highway projects.  (Between 2003 and 2010, backover fatalities on highway projects alone occurred at the rate of about 1.5 per month.  Overall, in 2011, backover fatalities, which are not confined to roadway jobsites, occurred at the rate of approximately 6 each month). Substantially all of these deaths are preventable.

Most vehicles in common use in construction now come equipped with backup alarms and operating lights, but while these are necessary, they are not in themselves sufficient.  Alarms may not function properly, and may not be heard because of other worksite noises.  Construction work zones can have a lot of things going on at once, and workers are vulnerable to being distracted.  Vehicle operators often just assume that areas to the rear of their vehicles are clear.  If your personal automobile is a newer model equipped with a rear view camera with dashboard monitor, chances are that you have had the experience of starting in motion in reverse, before checking the monitor, only to have to stop short upon seeing something behind you.

Provided that spotters, equipment and vehicle operators, and “foot workers” are all  properly trained, the use of spotters should reduce — although it will not necessarily eliminate — the danger of persons being killed or injured in backover incidents.  For example, a spotter, assisting the driver of one vehicle, may not detect a different vehicle approaching from outside his field of vision.  In other instances, the driver may take for granted that his co-workers know better than to kneel within a few feet to the rear of a truck with its engine on and an operator visible in the driver’s seat, only to find, inexplicably, a worker doing precisely that, despite having been trained.

The #1 contributing cause to backover accidents overall is that rearview mirrors (and cameras) on vehicles have blind spots, and those on dump trucks and other large vehicles commonly found on construction sites generally have larger blind spots than your Camry or your Lexus.

So, what should you do to avoid backover accidents?  First, if your employees work more than very rarely in situations where vehicles (notably, dump trucks, which are involved in about three-fifths of backover injuries) and equipment (notably, forklifts) will be operated in reverse, preventing backovers needs to be recognized as a primary topic of your company’s safety program and training.  Your company needs to articulate, implement, and enforce safety rules and procedures, that will minimize dangers from working on foot in proximity to vehicles and equipment.

Your vehicles should be equipped with cameras and in-vehicle display monitors (as well as rearview mirrors and audible backup alarms, of course).  Vehicles and equipment should be inspected at the beginning of each work shift, to ensure that safety devices (windows and mirrors, as well as brakes, lights, horns, and reverse alarms) are all in good working order.  Windows and mirrors must be clean and properly adjusted.  Defective vehicles, equipment, and safety devices should be reported at once, and taken out of service until repaired.

Especially if vehicular traffic in your work areas is at times heavy, or includes semis or other large vehicles, you should consider the use of proximity-warning systems (radar and sonar devices, or tag-based electronic systems that alert drivers when other employees are behind the vehicle, and also alert employees when they walk near a vehicle equipped to communicate with the tag worn by the employee).

In selecting vehicles and equipment to purchase or lease for use by your employees, you should choose vehicles and equipment outfitted with rear-vision cameras and/or proximity warning systems, and give consideration to whether items considered for purchase or lease has been designed to minimize “blind” areas.

Your supervisors, especially, should be well-trained, so as to be thoroughly familiar with backover hazards, and assured that management is serious about preventing injuries of that kind.  Before your workers are put to work in the field each day, their supervisors should have made appropriate inquiries of the prime contractor and other trades, and should apprise employees under their supervision of expected changes in traffic flows and equipment usage.

The start of each shift is also a good time to go over communications signals (flags, verbal, and/or hand signals) to be used among spotters, flaggers, machine operators, truck drivers, and persons working on foot.

If you work at night, everyone should be equipped with high-visibility apparel, and special attention should be paid to ensuring adequate lighting, especially in zones in which workers may be in proximity to vehicles and equipment.

Visibility, when vehicles are operated in reverse, is generally poorer than when in forward gear, so you should employ all reasonable measures to minimize the occasion to operate vehicles in reverse.  Most projects can be designed and laid out with internal traffic controls, to channel the operation of vehicles, reduce the need to back up, and to minimize foot traffic in proximity to where vehicles will be operated.  Barrels, portable barricades, and traffic cones should be deployed, to channel construction vehicles and equipment away from workers, and signs should be installed to caution workers with respect to traffic areas, vehicle flow, and areas that are off-limits to workers on foot.

Certainly if your trade involves working on roadways, you need to know, and comply with, Subparts “O” and “G” of 29 C.F.R. 1926, and the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

Training the rank-and-file is a key element of preventing backover accidents, and particular emphasis should be given to heightening employee awareness of the extent to which blind spots are greatly more extensive around dump trucks and other vehicles likely to be found on construction sites, as compared with passenger cars and SUVs.  For that purpose, I am attaching a link that you might find useful in making handouts for a toolbox session on the subject: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/highwayworkzones/BAD/imagelookup.html.  (Blind spots are shown for a variety of common vehicles and equipment.)

A good method to drive home just how large “blind spots” can be is to seat each employee in the driver’s seat of a vehicle of a kind likely to be in operation on your work sites.  Then, have other employees station themselves (in kneeling, as well as standing positions) in the various locations constituting the vehicle’s blind spots.

Excepting, possibly, your most trusted supervisors, employees must not only be told not to use cell phones, mp3 players and similar devices while working, but should be required to stow such items in their personal vehicles.  Most jobsites are simply too dangerous to allow distractions of the kind.

And, just as you cannot remind your workers too frequently that no one works on a roof or other elevated surface without fall protection, you must remind them unceasingly that no one should ever operate (or allow anyone else to operate) a truck or forklift in reverse gear, except under the direction of a spotter. 

Like fall protection, backover (and other vehicular “struck-by” hazards) present dangers that, however well-known they become to your workforce, are all too likely to be disregarded.  How often do you see workers on elevated surfaces, wearing fall-protection harnesses, who have not bothered to tie off?  Accordingly, this is a safety topic to which you need to return, time and again, with your employees.

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