Safeguarding the Cone Zone: Safety Unit Keeps Workers Safe and Motorists Moving
The four-person unit, on call 24/7, is an essential part of the Construction team.
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It was probably a joke to the people in the car speeding down the Harbor Freeway (SR-110) late at night. One of the passengers leaned out the window brandishing a baseball bat and systematically took out the cones set up for a construction closure.
To Safety Coordinator Youssef Youssefzadeh, who was in the car behind the cone bashers, this was no joke. With the cones down, motorists could unwittingly plow into the construction site and the crews working there, turning a stupid prank into a senseless tragedy in a split second. Luckily, it didn’t come to that. Youssefzadeh immediately made a call and had the cones re-set, but the incident illustrates the inherent dangers of freeway construction and the importance of District 7’s Construction Safety Unit.
The Safety Unit, supervised by Sam Tzou, consists of two safety coordinators, Youssefzadeh and Iraj Hormozi, and two traffic advisors, Mike Lopez and Amjad Obeid. All are engineers with years of experience in freeway construction and broad knowledge of worksite safety, and all are vital members of the construction team, available anytime day or night.
“There are two facets of the unit. One is watching out for safety, and the other is traffic control,” said Fekade Mesfin, office chief, Construction Engineering Management. “Together, they help make sure that conditions in and around the construction site are safe for Caltrans staff, the contractor’s crew, and the public.”
The safety coordinators are part drill sergeant, part preacher, part coach. Construction safety policies number in the hundreds, and Youssefzadeh and Hormozi make it their mission to achieve compliance with all of them. Every operation has its own code of safe practices – from making sure that crews wear their ANSI 107-2004 Class 3 reflective garments at night to taking appropriate precautions when working on bridges where bats live.
The coordinators spread the safety gospel by participating in preconstruction meetings, visiting project sites, holding regular safety trainings, and responding to contractors’ questions. They also do it by being aggressively, unremittingly stubborn. “We have to be adamant. There is no compromise on safety,” said Youssefzadeh, adding that when necessary, the safety coordinators can recommend that the resident engineer shut down an operation until safety lapses are corrected.
The traffic advisors, meanwhile, focus on redirecting motorists impacted by construction. “Basically, we assist the resident engineers with all the traffic control aspects of projects,” said Lopez. That can mean anything from closing a small segment of a lane to managing a complicated detour.
Their work begins long before the first cone is set up. They review and provide input on each project’s Traffic Management Plan to ensure that the needs of Caltrans staff, the contractor and motorists are all taken into account. And if there’s a closure that’s not working well – say, cars are backing up on a ramp – Lopez and Obeid will go to the site, assess the situation, and develop a solution.
The role of the traffic advisor is particularly complicated in District 7. “We have some very complex locations here,” said Lopez. “In some places we have ramps that are close together, a lack of shoulders, tight work areas and traffic moving at high speed.” These limitations can make traffic control tricky as the advisors strive to strike a balance between work zone safety and minimizing inconvenience to the public.
Members of the Safety team say one of the biggest hurdles they face is a lack of public awareness about what it takes to build and maintain the freeway system. “The public doesn’t understand what’s required to construct, for example, a catch basin. To them it’s just a small concrete box,” said Youssefzadeh. “They don’t understand why we need to take two lanes.”
Despite its challenges, working in the Safety Unit is not without its rewards. “I like being able to go out to the different project sites, not being tied down,” said Lopez. “It can take a lot of planning, but when a closure works well, that’s very satisfying.”