For highway workers, danger always lurks

Highway workers say they find satisfaction in building something that makes a lasting difference, but they're also keenly aware of the risk.

Last week's deaths of two highway workers hit by a car in a construction zone in Burnsville was a stark reminder to other roadside workers of just how deadly their work can be.

"Sometimes there's just cones between you and the traffic," Minnesota Department of Transportation inspector Trent Mechels said Friday as he worked on a bridge replacement project Friday at Hamline Avenue and Interstate 694 in Arden Hills amid dust, heavy equipment, the roar of traffic and a chilling west wind. "You learn to grow eyes in the back of your head. You try not to turn your back to traffic.

"Plenty of guys get hit, and [Thursday's crash] was a prime example," he said. "It's dangerous, and that's something you've got to keep in the back of your mind all the time."

Still, road construction is the only kind of work Mechels, 46, of Coon Rapids, has ever done, and he said that, for the most part, he likes it.

That's because "I get to be outside," he said. "Sometimes the weather really stinks, you know. But I enjoy it."

The State Patrol has determined that Kirk Deamos, 21, of suburban Kansas City, Mo., was neither speeding nor under the influence of alcohol when he apparently overcompensated while trying to steer away from a concrete construction barrier and drove into the ditch along I-35W. Craig D. Carlson, 47, of Ramsey, and Ronald Rajkowski, 44, of St. Joseph, both electricians with Egan Co., were killed.

After Thursday's accident, officials once again pleaded with drivers to use caution in a metro area pocked with work zones -- more than 80 state highway projects this year alone. Until Thursday, no construction workers had been killed in the metro area since 2008. But last year, statewide, there were 1,915 crashes in work zones, and 11 workers or drivers died in such crashes.

The accident news contains a note of tragic irony, because the concrete barrier is frequently used on metro highway construction sites to protect workers.

Tim Worke, director of highway issues for Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, said construction workers may be more vulnerable in outstate Minnesota, where cones and plastic posts frequently are all that separates traffic from workers.

"You can go out on a trunk highway in the Brainerd Lakes area, and there can be cones," Worke said. "You come upon this five-mile construction zone and it's down to one lane and people just blow through it."

MnDOT spokesman Kent Barnard noted that 98 percent of the people killed or injured in construction zones are motorists.

'It keeps you on your toes'

But that statistic doesn't comfort construction workers.

"I see a lot of them texting, looking at their phones," said Aaron Ross, 31, a laborer for Shafer Contracting Co., who was also at the Arden Hills bridge site Friday, where he's spent part of the day working along the shoulder.

"My first year, it was scary," Ross said. "It keeps you on your toes. You've got to be constantly aware of what's going on around you, and hope other people notice you, too."

MnDOT project inspector Shelley Angier said an additional risk for highway workers is that they simply get used to the mayhem around them -- the constant whine of passing traffic and even the beeping of backing bulldozers and dump trucks.

But Ross said the risks aren't on his mind when he's on the way to work every day.

"I love the people I work with," he said. "The bad part is cold, windy days like today. But I really love doing this."

Mechels said drivers sometimes "get ugly."

"It's a love-hate relationship," he said. "They hate us when we're out there, but they love it when we're done."

"People will throw stuff at us because they're mad. They'll honk or give us the finger or whatever," he said. "Other times people will tell us how good a job we're doing."

Mechels said he has noticed that drivers seem more cautious in construction zones since a 2008 law required passing drivers to move one lane away from highway workers.

But he added, "I wish people would be a whole lot more aware of what they're doing when we're out there. I wish people would slow down a bit more."

Barnard, who in addition to acting as a MnDOT spokesman also drives a snowplow in the winter, said highway building can bring some lasting satisfaction.

"This is a legacy for many people," he said. "You work on something and years later drive through and say, 'I helped build that bridge or that interchange,' and it's improved transportation, and saved lives in some cases."

mcaul@startribune.com • 612-673-7646 pdoyle@startribune.com • 612-673-4504

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  • MINNESOTA'S ROADS

    1,915

    Work zone crashes in 2010

    80

    MNDOT projects in the metro area in 2011

    State law: Motorists must move one lane away from emergency vehicles and construction workers on a roadside.
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