In this article
According to National Highways, the government company which plans, designs, builds, operates and maintains England’s motorways and major A-roads, known as the strategic road network (SRN), each day some 3,000+ highway workers are out on our region’s roads doing a whole host of things to make journeys safer and smoother. From repairing sections of road, to constructing new safety barriers to painting road markings and much more, they work day and night right across our network of motorways and major A-roads. The strategic road network (SRN) is arguably the biggest and most important piece of infrastructure in the country. Its 4,500 miles of motorways and major A-roads are at the core of our national transport system.
Everyone who uses and works on our roads needs to be able to do so safely. As there are countless safety hazards when working on the strategic road network that need to be overcome on a daily basis, highway workers will need to maintain their own safety, as well as the safety of the area and the people around them.
What is the role of a highway worker?
A highway worker helps to build and repair roads and motorways. Private civil engineering companies and public bodies such as local councils employ highway workers. They repair the thousands of miles of road and motorway in the UK, as well as building new roads. They are also needed when cables and pipes are laid or repaired. They might also excavate trenches, lay drains, kerbs and pipes, and paint road markings. The job involves a lot of hard, physical work, using a range of tools, and carrying heavy or awkward materials.
Depending on where they work, the role may involve:
- Road building, widening and re-surfacing
- Preparing sites, clearing ground and levelling
- Loading dumpers and trucks
- Repairing potholes and cracks
- Crushing and screening materials
- Laying pavements and kerbs
- Maintaining roadside verges and central reservations
- Painting road markings
- Putting up crash barriers, road signs, traffic lights and street lamps
- Digging access trenches for cable and pipe laying
- Accessing work at height
- Gritting roads and clearing snow in winter
- Working by hand using picks and shovels
- Operating power tools and plant machinery for heavier jobs
- Transporting equipment
- Setting up warning signs and cones and managing traffic and pedestrians close to the work site
- Working outside, in weather conditions that can be cold and wet, or in bright sun and high temperatures
The above list is not exhaustive. Whatever the environment they work in, a highway worker will be responsible for ensuring the safety of their work, tools and any equipment to protect the safety of themselves and other people.
What are the main health and safety risks highway workers can encounter?
Highway construction and repair can be one of the most dangerous industries to work in, as Britain’s roads are some of the busiest in the world, so ensuring safety is essential. Whilst all road worksites come with risks, some projects are more hazardous than others or have unique issues.
By far, the most pressing safety concern for highway workers is moving vehicles and vehicular collisions. Highway workers are often faced with dangerous driving, which puts them at risk. Drivers travelling too fast, driving into coned-off areas where road workers are working, or entering the roadworks area, are just a few examples. Careless drivers may speed past barriers and collide with workers and/or equipment, causing severe harm or even death. Other examples include drivers lacking concentration leading to them veering into the cones or even following roadworks vehicles into the roadworks or ignoring a road closure.
Often highways work is carried out at night when the roads are less busy, but when operations take place at night it is dark, and there are additional hazards of impaired visibility for both highway workers and road users, so precautions still need to be taken. These include road signs to indicate road closures and diversions, temporary traffic lights, stop and go signs, fences, traffic cones and floodlights to light the site so that all workers can see clearly, and to minimise the safety risks associated with low visibility.
All highways construction teams try to avoid working in inclement weather, but storms, high winds or other hazards can come unexpectedly. These are particularly troublesome for highway projects, which may be out in the open with little shelter. While highways construction teams can’t control the weather, they can take steps to mitigate associated risks such as checking forecasts and radar to ensure conditions are favourable. Teams should have an emergency plan if things take a turn for the worse and enact it at the first sign of extreme weather.
Highway workers are vulnerable to abuse and/or threats or violence from members of the public. Surprisingly, it was revealed by Highways England that reported abuse cases have risen; there were around 330 incidents of abuse reported from Sept 2019 to October 2020, an average of nearly one every day. Any incident in which a highway worker is verbally abused, threatened or assaulted by a member of the public during the course of their work should be reported. Highway workers should be effectively trained to deal with potentially violent and aggressive members of the public; for example, being able to recognise triggers and have appropriate strategies to use to de-escalate situations.
Another challenge with highways construction projects is that teams have limited space to work in. Most of the time, workers can only close one or two lanes, and there may not be much space on the side of the road. Incidents where highway workers get caught between objects are the fourth most common cause of death in highways construction, so cramped spaces can be dangerous. To make the most of the limited space, roadside construction teams should minimise the number of vehicles on-site and use only as much heavy equipment as necessary. With less space to move around, highway workers have to pay more attention to their surroundings. Site managers should do all they can to minimise distractions, such as banning mobile phones from the worksite. All highway workers should also communicate with one another clearly, especially when heavy equipment is involved.
As there is a wide and ever-increasing variety of mechanical plant and equipment in use in the highways construction industry, all operators must be competent to perform their duties. Highway workers could be operating one type of machine or a variety of machines during a project such as road rollers, pavement spreaders, planers, excavators, crawler dozers, dump trucks etc and also working on ground works with power and hand tools and small plant such as dumpers and loader compressors.
Manufacturers and suppliers of mechanical plant and equipment have a duty under health and safety legislation to provide information on any hazards associated with their products and advise on their safe use. Users should ensure that they are in possession of this information, and make certain that the drivers and operators are instructed accordingly. Before using a machine, the operator’s training and experience must be checked to assess their competency. Competent persons carrying out planning of the use of machines should ensure that all work must be carried out to a Method Statement and that the Method Statement is a description of the safe system of work developed from a risk assessment of the task to be undertaken.
The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) place duties on people and companies who own, operate or have control over work equipment. PUWER also places responsibilities on businesses and organisations whose employees use work equipment, whether owned by them or not.
PUWER requires that equipment provided for use at work is:
- Suitable for the intended use.
- Safe for use, maintained in a safe condition and inspected to ensure it is correctly installed and does not subsequently deteriorate.
- Accompanied by suitable health and safety measures, such as protective devices and controls. These will normally include emergency stop devices, adequate means of isolation from sources of energy, clearly visible markings and warning devices.
- Used in accordance with specific requirements.
Generally, any equipment which is used by an employee at work is covered by PUWER, for example hammers, knives, ladders, drilling machines, power presses, circular saws, photocopiers, lifting equipment (including lifts), dumper trucks and motor vehicles. Similarly, workers providing their own equipment will be covered by PUWER and it will need to comply.
Using mechanical plant and any equipment in the vicinity of overhead or buried electrical cables, and underground gas mains, presents a very serious hazard of exposure to electricity via overhead and underground cables, and special precautions must be taken by all concerned. Mobile plant is often large, powerful and noisy in operation and the drivers may have restricted visibility. For these reasons, non-essential personnel should be kept away from the area of operation and before moving or operating any machine, the operator must first check that it is safe to do so. Don’t take chances with electricity cables; treat all cables as live until you know otherwise.
Excessive noise affects virtually all construction projects, but roadside teams face more than most and the louder an environment is, the harder it is to hear incoming hazards. Highways traffic typically produces sounds from 70 to 80 decibels, the equivalent of someone shouting just one metre away. With traffic producing so much noise, highway workers may not hear heavy machinery getting closer. Verbal communication is also far more challenging, especially if workers are wearing hearing protection. In light of these hazards, highways construction teams should adopt a system of nonverbal communication such as a predetermined system of hand signals to communicate without having to hear anything.
Manual handling injuries have a major impact on all workplaces and sectors, costing the economy hundreds of millions every year. Manual handling encompasses a wide range of actions including lifting, lowering, pulling, pushing, and carrying awkward and heavy objects.
The risks are endless for highway workers who may experience manual handling injuries such as:
- Back injuries
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as shoulder strain
- Repetitive strain injury (RSI) such as wrist strain
- Soft-tissue injuries to the wrists, arms, shoulders, legs or neck
- Long-term pain in the arms, legs or joints
Slips, trips and falls are one of the top three causes of non-fatal work injuries involving days away from work. Each year they cause thousands of preventable injuries; they can cause various injuries such as bruises, sprains, scrapes, broken bones and head traumas. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) several thousand construction workers are injured each year following a trip or slip whilst at work on site and this figure will include road construction workers. Around 1,000 of these injuries involve someone fracturing bones or dislocating joints.
Key aspects of construction slips and trips include:
- Uneven surfaces
- Trailing cables
- Wet or slippery surfaces
- Changes in level
Slips and trips affect the whole workplace, so everyone should work to eliminate them by cleaning up spills or debris, even if they did not cause them. Dispose of all debris safely in a skip, bin or designated areas for waste collection, as the debris may contain nails or other sharp objects. Keep work areas clear, orderly, dry and free from leaks, spills, snow and ice and make sure footwear with a good grip is worn; we will look at PPE later in this guide.
There are a number of significant respiratory health hazards linked to road construction, in particular, work associated with cutting / drilling / breaking paving blocks, kerbs, flags, concrete and rock, laying and repair of asphalt, and any work carried out adjacent to diesel-emitting generators and site vehicles.
Dust exposure including silica is a major hazard to highway workers on road construction sites. Silica is a natural substance found in varying amounts in most rocks, sand and clay. For example, sandstone contains more than 70% silica, whereas granite might contain 15-30%. Silica is also a major constituent of construction materials such as bricks, tiles, concrete and mortar. Highway workers generate dust from these materials during many common road construction tasks. These include cutting, drilling, grinding and polishing. Some of this dust is fine enough to get deep into the lungs. The fine dust is known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS) and is too fine to see with normal lighting. Silica is the biggest risk to road construction workers and the amounts needed to cause this damage are not large.
Heavy and prolonged exposure to RCS can cause lung cancer and other serious respiratory diseases such as:
- Silicosis – this can cause severe breathing problems and increases the risk of lung infections. Silicosis usually follows exposure to RCS over many years, but extremely high exposures can cause acute silicosis more quickly.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – this is a group of lung diseases including bronchitis and emphysema. It results in severe breathlessness, prolonged coughing and chronic disability. It can be very disabling and is a leading cause of death. Around 4,000 deaths are estimated annually due to COPD resulting from workplace exposures in the past. Road construction workers are a significant at-risk group within this.
- Asthma is a distressing and potentially life-threatening disease that can be caused by breathing in, for example, chemicals, dust, exhaust fumes, fumes from petrol or diesel engine equipment such as generators or compressors etc.
HSE figures show that 800 people lose their lives to cancer every year because they inhale hazardous dust particles. A further 39,000 suffer from respiratory illnesses caused by the same particles.
Bitumen, also known as asphalt, is commonly used for road surfacing. Hot bitumen work releases fumes containing polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) / particulate, which, when inhaled, can cause irritation of the respiratory tract, eyes and skin, burns, and possibly lung cancer.
Diesel engine exhaust emissions (DEEEs) contain a complex mix of gaseous components, for example nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and various particulates. Exposure to these substances is more likely when working near to the emissions sources, such as generators and site vehicles like excavators, planers and lorries. When inhaled, DEEEs have been linked to a long-term increased risk of lung cancer, as well as a definite risk of respiratory tract irritation causing symptoms such as coughing, breathlessness, rhinitis and wheezing.
Damping surfaces can help to reduce dust as can working with hand tools rather than power tools, and wearing appropriate PPE such as masks or respirators affords each individual a level of protection; we will look at PPE later in this guidance.
Highway workers are exposed to the elements during the course of their work. Too much sunlight even on cool days, is harmful to the skin. In the short term, even mild reddening of the skin from sun exposure is a sign of damage. Sunburn can blister the skin and make it peel and longer-term problems can arise. Exposure to too much sun speeds up ageing of the skin, making it leathery, mottled and wrinkled. The most serious effect is an increased chance of developing skin cancer.
Highway workers should use a high factor sunscreen of at least SPF15 on any exposed skin and, if possible, wear a hat with a brim or a flap that covers the ears and the back of the neck. They should also drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Dehydration is an issue for any construction project, but working beside a highway can make it worse. Materials such as concrete and asphalt absorb heat and release it slowly, raising the temperature of the immediate area. Workers standing around fresh asphalt and concrete are much more likely to experience heat exhaustion as a result. Highway workers should drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and keep from working at midday when it is hottest, if possible. On hot, sunny days, workers should take frequent breaks to prevent overexertion and heat exhaustion.
Maintaining a safe work environment is important, particularly in the high-risk work environment faced by highway workers. It is important that every hazard is met with elimination or, at the minimum, a control measure to mitigate any potential risk. Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), the minimum a business must do is:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards)
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk)
- Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn’t possible, control the risk
Risk assessment requires making a judgement on Risk Severity. Risk Severity = probability of risk materialising x impact of risk on, for example, a person or people, a business, a property etc.
Probability may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – a reasonably informed person would think it very unlikely this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- Medium (Level 2) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a significant possibility this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- High (Level 3) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a very significant or even likely possibility the risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
Impact may be understood as:
- What the potential hazard is – the risk assessment should take into consideration, for example, the type of equipment used, the way in which it is used and the environment it is used in
- Who or what could be harmed by the hazard
- How the level of risk has been established
- The precautions taken to eliminate or control that risk
Managing risk is an ongoing process that is triggered when changes affect a highway worker’s work activities; changes such as, but not limited to:
- Changing work practices, procedures or the work environment
- Purchasing new or used equipment or using new substances
- Workforce changes
- Planning to improve efficiency or reduce costs
- New information about the workplace risks becomes available
Risk assessments should be recorded and records regularly reviewed and updated whenever necessary. Should an accident occur, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will request copies of the risk assessments.
There are a number of laws and regulations that apply to the management of health and safety risks to highway workers. These include, but are not limited to:
It is a requirement of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) for employers to assess all exposures to hazardous substances in the workplace and implement necessary control measures in order to protect their workers’ health.
Under the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (MHOR), manual handling which might cause injury is prohibited unless an assessment has been made, and if the operation cannot be avoided, suitable control measures should be in place. In all cases, reasonable alternatives to manual handling should be employed.
The Highways Act 1980 is an Act to make provision for and in connection with the designation of traffic officers and their duties; to make provision in relation to the management of road networks; and to make new provision for regulating the carrying out of works and other activities in the street.
New Road and Street Works Act 1991 (NRSWA) is an Act to amend the law relating to roads so as to enable new roads to be provided by new means; to make new provision with respect to street works and for connected purposes.
Why is PPE important
Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 2002 place a statutory duty on employers concerning the provision and use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at work. Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects workers from hazards such as trips, burns, electrocution and falls. While there is some PPE that is universal to many occupations, highway workers have certain PPE which is specific to their job.
- High-visibility clothing with reflective strips, which is required by law to ensure individuals can be seen. When working on roads, full-body high-visibility clothing will be needed, which is particularly important when working outside in low light and poor visibility conditions. Reflective workwear must fit properly and meet ISO EN 20471:2013 for high-visibility warning clothing. Hi-vis clothing should be comfortable, non-restrictive and provide good visibility during the day, at night, and in poor weather conditions.
- Head protection such as a bump cap, a hard yet lightweight head covering to protect from knocks to the head. Head protection is required by law on all construction sites where there is a risk of head injury. It is also important to inspect the safety helmet on a daily basis to ensure that the structure and various components – that is, the outer shell, chin strap and visor – are in good condition to ensure adequate head protection. Head torches will be required when operating at night so workers can see exactly what they are doing and so that they can be seen by colleagues and drivers.
- Hand protection, including thick gloves and barrier creams when conditions are damp, or workers are using substances that may irritate or harm skin.
- Foot protection, such as steel toe cap boots. PPE footwear should be slip-resistant and have puncture-resistant soles.
- Safety goggles/glasses – the use of eye protection can stop harmful debris from entering the eyes such as flying particles or dust which can cause serious eye injuries or even blindness.
- Hearing protection – road construction sites are loud and highway workers are often exposed to much of this noise. Failure to wear dedicated hearing protection equipment such as noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs or earmuffs, either reusable or disposable, can lead to severe damage to the eardrum, tinnitus or even irreversible hearing loss in one or both ears.
- Face masks and respirators – prevent potentially inhaling substances, such as silica, exhaust emissions or dust. For proper use and to ensure compliance, be sure to fit test the respirator, undergo formal training, always make sure it is clean and never borrow or use another worker’s respirator.
- Sunscreen – highway workers should use sunscreen with SPF minimum 30 UVA protection or higher, 20 minutes before going outside. It doesn’t matter if they are working in the heat or not, highway workers still need to wear sunscreen for sun protection; the shade from a hard hat isn’t enough as UV radiation from the sun penetrates clouds and glass.
What training should highway workers take?
A person can become a highway worker after getting a certification in civil construction or a related field, such as:
- Level 1 Certificate in Basic Construction Skills
- Level 1 Certificate in Building Crafts
- Level 1 Certificate/Diploma in Work Preparation for Building and Construction
- Level 2 Diploma in Construction Operations
Although someone can become a highway worker without a formal qualification, it is necessary to have experience and on-the-job training as all sites on existing roads must have at least one trained and qualified operative.
When highway workers are trained to work safely, they should be able to anticipate and avoid injury from job-related hazards. Safety training is essential for all highway workers appropriate to their role, and training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained.
This training for highway workers might include, but is not limited to:
- Health and Safety for Employees
- Health and Safety for Managers
- Manual Handling
- Workplace First Aid
- COSHH Awareness
- Slips, Trips and Falls
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- PUWER Awareness
- Assessing Risks
- RIDDOR Awareness
- Electrical Safety Awareness
- HAVS (Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome) Training
- Noise Awareness
Highway workers should at a minimum refresh their safety training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).
Get started on a course suitable for highway workers
COSHH Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Noise Awareness£20 + VAT View course
HAVS (Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome) Training£20 + VAT View course
Electrical Safety Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Assessing Risk (Risk Assessment Course)£20 + VAT View course
RIDDOR Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Managers£49 + VAT View course
Workplace First Aid£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Employees£20 + VAT View course
Manual Handling£20 + VAT View course
Slips, Trips and Falls£20 + VAT View course
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)£20 + VAT View course
PUWER Awareness£20 + VAT View course