Day two of the Fix50 project downtown provided little drama for commuters, as traffic mostly flowed smoothly. It was a different matter inside the construction zone, where three workers were injured Wednesday morning by a flying board.
In what Caltrans officials called an unusual incident, a worker accidentally swung the end of a two-by-four over the concrete safety barrier that separates the work area from vehicles driving by on Highway 50, causing the end of the 20-foot board to make contact with a big-rig truck passing by at about 25 to 35 miles per hour. The lumber shot out of the workers hands, striking nearby workers, according to California Highway Patrol officials.
Two of the injured were transported to UC Davis Medical Center for treatment. The names of the injured parties were not released Wednesday. Two worked for Myers and Sons, the contractor for Caltrans $46 million downtown freeway repair, and one was a Caltrans consultant, according to CHP spokesman Officer Michael Bradley.
The truck, which was traveling eastbound near 16th Street, did not stop. Bradley said its possible the driver didnt even know the truck had been involved in an accident, given the noise of jackhammers and vibration at the site. Authorities are looking for the driver, he said.
Although the injuries were not life-threatening, the incident highlighted a stark fact: On freeway projects like Fix50, life and death are sometimes just inches apart.
State data indicate that vehicles crash into 45 percent of highway contractor work zones, Caltrans officials said. The highway agency has chronicled 12 private contractor worker deaths at highway work sites in the last five years.
Highway work is one of the most dangerous jobs, said Jody Jones, local Caltrans district director. More Caltrans highways workers have been killed in the line of duty than highway patrol.
In her 13 years as local district director, Jones said she has had to inform families of the death of a highway worker four times. Still, Jones called the Wednesday incident unusual. Im really grateful the three (workers) were not seriously injured or killed.
Two investigations are being launched, one by contractor Myers and Sons, the other by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
Clint Myers, vice president of Myers and Sons, declined to comment about the incident or his companys review, which will be conducted with Caltrans. When we have answers, we will let people know, Myers said.
State labor safety officials were on scene Wednesday afternoon to launch their investigation, said Peter Melton, spokesman for Cal-OSHA. They will be interviewing eyewitnesses and the injured workers, Melton said. We have made absolutely no conclusions at this time.
Cal-OSHAs investigation could take up to six months, he said, noting that the agency could halt work immediately if it determines an imminent danger to employees.
Michael Strunk, director of safety for Operating Engineers Local 3, was at the worksite when the accident happened, though he did not witness it. Its all sort of nebulous right now, Strunk said of the accident, echoing the remarks of CHP and Caltrans officials earlier Wednesday.
Strunk, whose group represents heavy equipment operators, noted that many measures are in place to prevent accidents, including barriers, cones and police escorts.
More importantly, he said, its about people watching out for each other.
Freeway work is typically done live, with crews often laboring just feet from high-speed traffic. Several state officials, as well as Strunk, the union safety representative, said the Fix50 project is not inherently more dangerous than other highway projects.
Any time you have people and traffic in an area, its always a supreme consideration, Strunk said. Any highway project in an urban area is challenging.
Ed Yarborough, Caltrans safety chief for much of Northern California, said the concrete barrier between workers and adjacent traffic is the biggest physical safety element on the project.
More important, he said, are the safety classes and refresher courses Caltrans workers and construction workers take. Crews also discuss safety habits daily during take five sessions at the worksite, he said. He said both he and a Myers company safety official are frequently on the scene.
Workers typically work as teams, he said. Often, when workers are in vulnerable positions, they have a spotter another worker who stands by, watching traffic, and talking to the worker doing the task.
But, sometimes, as might have been the case Wednesday, a worker can simply forget how close he is to traffic.
Every task anyone does, people can get tunnel vision, Yarborough said. That can happen to anybody, anyplace, anytime.
Caltrans officials say they will launch a renewed Slow For the Cone Zone safety campaign next week.
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