Outer Ring fallout

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on December 10, 2011
A sign warns motorists to slow down on the Outer Ring Road. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

An internal investigation into an Outer Ring Road accident that killed a Transportation and Works employee last summer made several recommendations to address safety hazards for the department's workers.

The senior engineer from the department's soils lab was among a group on site July 5 discussing the issue of ruts on the road and the potential for using alternate asphalt mixes to reduce wear and tear.

Besides the Transportation worker, two other men were injured, one of them a City of St. John's engineer.

News reports based on the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's (RNC) preliminary information at the time suggested an eastbound SUV was travelling behind several vehicles in the curb lane. When they suddenly slowed, the SUV driver swerved into the median lane to avoid a rear-end collision, reports said. It was suggested the driver then lost control of the vehicle and collided with the three men.

But several months later, the RNC investigation is still ongoing, but is nearing the end, The Telegram was told Friday. Weather has been ruled out as a contributing factor. According to the RNC, the collision occurred just prior to a downpour of rain.

In the wake of the accident, news reports and open line shows hashed out renewed criticism of the Outer Ring Road, including complaints about rutting and hydroplaning dangers.

Practically since it opened, the road has spurred public debate over whether its design is flawed and how dangerous people feel it is to travel on.

The tragedy also prompted public commentary about the safety of highway workers.

While internally, shock gripped his department and workers were offered grief counselling, a shaken Transportation Minister Tom Hedderson offered his condolences publicly and in the weeks after the crash defended the commuter roadway's accident tally and design and cautioned motorists to slow down, especially in bad weather.

"Key messages" from Hedderson and the department over the summer involved the awarding of a $2.1-million tender for work that included repairs to ruts on the road, as well as asphalt repairs to various bridge decks on the Outer Ring.

Another message was that people sometimes blame rutting on the Outer Ring Road for accidents and label it "the cause" for hydroplaning, without acknowledging speed.

And it was pointed out the roadway is the busiest one owned by the provincial government and, contrary to popular opinion, is not the road with the highest number of collisions in the St. John's area.

Hedderson told The Telegram this week he wasn't trying to deflect attention away from the Outer Ring Road.

"It stands to reason with the speed and number of cars, you are going to have some mishaps in there," he said.

"There's probably more accidents on Kenmount Road than the Outer Ring. But when an accident occurs on the Outer Ring with the speed involved, oftentimes it is not only property damage but loss of life.

"It's a good stretch of road. ... People are changing their driving habits. I travel from Avondale to here everyday and I can tell you the driving patterns of some people are frightening. And it is about speed."

The department is collecting data and plans to step up public awareness once that's analyzed.

"You can't blame it on road conditions all the time," Hedderson said.

He also asked his assistant deputy minister what he thought of public calls to erect better signs, especially warning of rutting. The reply to Hedderson's query was not included in an access to information response.

Hedderson noted this week the province uses signs to warn of such things as high winds, as seen in the Wreckhouse area on the west coast and there's a sign on the Outer Ring Road warning people to slow down because of hydroplaning.

But the department isn't warning people about ruts on any highway.

"You can't always depend on signs," Hedderson said. "You got to be a very astute driver ... We can't put a sign out for every possible hazard."

Not all the ruts on the Outer Ring Road were repaired, but the department concentrated on the most serious. It uses a special machine to monitor deterioration.

As for the July accident, Service NL is also still conducting an occupational health and safety investigation. A spokesman said it's not known when that will be concluded.

But Transportation and Works did its own occupational health and safety investigation.

The report is not about the safety of the Outer Ring Road itself, but rather the safety of department workers when they are trying to do their jobs.

The recommendations from the report - some still in the process of being implemented - were released to The Telegram following an access to information request. The investigation involved three public servants, two outside the department.

The report found gaps in the way Occupational Health and Safety regulations were viewed.

"A critical part of a health and safety program is an effective method or system of identifying and controlling hazards in the workplace," said the first recommendation pinpointing failings with the way in which hazards are being identified.

'However it was not obvious through the investigation that this section is widely understood or utilized."

The department was advised to review its training and encourage all workers to be on the lookout for hazards on the job.

A new procedure is in place, which prompts employees to conduct a hazard assessment regarding traffic in a given area before exiting their vehicle to do work.

The department was also advised to step up its communication of the need to wear high visibility apparel for all employees, and to review its protocol regarding safety rules for visitors to department worksites.

It was also advised to revisit training needs for workers who aren't routinely in high risk situations, but nevertheless find themselves in danger on occasion.

"An example of this concern, highlighted in this investigation, was the relaxed attitude from a safety perspective that was generally associated with brief cursory road inspections," the report suggests, adding the practice extended to engineers and even outside consultants who inspect government property such as buildings and ferries.

"There are many examples of this type of situation in Transportation and Works."

New training is about to be rolled out.

The investigation also found that the department's occupational health and safety committees focus on the office environment and infrastructure issues and need to be coached to include hazards of job tasks that occur outside their building.

The accident prompted a full review of the department's approach to promoting occupational health and safety, in the field and otherwise, the department said.

Hedderson said last July's accident was one of the worst days of his life. Colleagues of the victim are still shaken and he feels for the worker's family.

"(He) worked for us for years. He was one of our main people," Hedderson said.

"It's a loss. When I think of (his) wife, this is the hardest time."

According to a spokesman for the City of St. John's, its engineer involved in the accident is still on leave, while recovering from his injuries sustained in the accident.