Each rose, cone and hard hat represents one Washington State Department of Transportation worker who has died on the job. The roses — 60 in all — were displayed Thursday morning at the annual Worker Memorial ceremony in Olympia. (Washington State Department of Transportation photo)

Annual memorial reminds us of transportation work zone risks

Slow down, pay attention when driving through work zones

Everyone has driven through a highway work zone with signs, flaggers and crews off to the side. But few drivers truly understand what it’s like to work on the side of a highway — or all the steps taken to ensure both workers’ and drivers’ safety.

Washington State Department of Transportation crews take time to design and operate safe work zones, but still see far too many close calls and crashes. In the past year, WSDOT workers have faced everything from vehicles rear-ending a construction truck to a motorhome barreling toward a worker on the side of Interstate 5.

Just last week, a maintenance worker in Southwest Washington was taken to the hospital for observation after a log truck crashed into a reader board truck while crews were paving potholes near Morton. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries, but this is an all-too-common occurrence on our roadways:

  • There were 1,790 crashes in state work zones in 2016.
  • Eleven people died in work zone crashes on state roadways in 2016.
  • Last year, 523 people, including WSDOT workers and members of the public, were injured in work zone crashes.
  • However, the state averages 850 work zone injuries every year.
  • The vast majority of people injured in work zones are not WSDOT workers. In 2016, 96 percent of those hurt were drivers, passengers or pedestrians. This means we all have an interest in being extra alert near work zones.
Greg King takes a photo with Gov. Jay Inslee after they talk Thursday during a reception before the annual Washington State Department of Transportation Workers Memorial ceremony. (Washington State Department of Transportation photo)

Greg King is still recovering from his on-the-job injury, which brought him to the brink of death. A little more than a year ago, he was struck by a tractor-trailer while working as a flagger along state Route 105 near Aberdeen.

The impact flung him 60 feet. He broke an arm and suffered injuries to his ribs, back and neck.

“It’s been 14 months, and I’m just about ready to get back to work,” King said Thursday during the annual Worker Memorial in Olympia. “I’m lucky to be here — very lucky to be here.”

But others have not survived their injuries. Since 1950, 60 WSDOT workers have lost their lives on the job.

Remembering WSDOT workers

WSDOT honored those employees at this year’s Worker Memorial ceremony. Family and friends of the deceased workers attend each year, along with WSDOT employees and Washington State Patrol Honor Guard members.

Gov. Jay Inslee met with families before the ceremony, adding his thanks and condolences to those offered by WSDOT staff and coworkers.

This year’s ceremony included a special remembrance of Bruce H. Cowing, a Hood Canal Bridge worker who died at the end of his shift on May 16, 2016. In addition to his family and friends, Cowing’s bridge crew attended the ceremony, helping to unveil the Memorial Wall plaque now bearing his name. WSDOT workers were asked to keep Cowing and his family in their thoughts and to renew their commitment to keeping themselves and their coworkers safe on the job.

“Safety was his big thing. He was a big advocate for safety both at home and at work,” Bruce’s son, Heethe Cowing, said. “I want to thank WSDOT for giving us the opportunity to honor my dad like this. It means a lot to us.”

Left: Gov. Jay Inslee visits with Alona Cowing, center, whose husband, Bruce Cowing, died this year while working for the Washington State Department of Transportation. Right: Gov. Jay Inslee and First Lady Trudi Inslee listen Thursday to family members of Billy Rhynalds, a WSDOT worker who died in 2011. They had all gathered for the agency’s annual Workers Memorial ceremony. (Washington State Department of Transportation photo)

The Worker Memorial is also a yearly reminder to all drivers about the importance of work zone safety for the busy spring and summer construction seasons. WSDOT is spending the month of April on a special Work Zone Safety Awareness campaign, on top of the safety messages shared throughout the year. This year’s outreach includes messages from workers themselves about ways to help keep everyone safe.

“It only takes a blink of any eye for an accident to happen,” reads one message.

“We all have loved ones at home and want to make sure everyone — our workers and the traveling public — gets home safely,” reads another.

Help send everyone home safe

It takes everyone’s help to improve work zone safety.

Please slow down and pay attention whenever you approach or drive through a work zone. The top three causes for work zone crashes are distracted/inattentive driving, following too close and speeding — and all are preventable.

Be especially alert for lane changes or sudden stops by vehicles in front of you and always obey all signs and directions. They’re there to keep you safe as well as to keep traffic moving. It can be frustrating to drive slower than you planned, but one moment’s distraction can cause a crash that snarls traffic for miles and hours.

It’s also key to budget some extra time if you know there’s road construction in your area. Worrying about being late can lead to speeding through work zones or dangerous behavior afterwards trying to make up the lost time.

Crews try to schedule projects during less congested times, but often work requires the dry, warm days of summer. That means planning a little extra traveling time when heading out on summer vacation or other trips.

Above all, please remember that no appointment is worth risking injuries or deaths. Everyone on the road — including road crew workers — is someone’s child, spouse, parent, sibling or friend. They all have someone they want to return to at the end of their day.