There has been a longtime need throughout the United States to adequately acknowledge and appreciate the tasks undertaken by workers in road construction and maintenance areas, and an equally vital need to better ensure the safety of those individuals when they are on the job. These priorities were emphasized as far back as the winter of 1953 in an article in the Idaho-based Caribou County Sun newspaper.
That article, entitled “Give Courtesy to the Highway Men,” noted how there were about 90 maintenance crews working day and night on nearly 4,600 miles (7,403 kilometers) of roads across Idaho at that time. “These men, all of them, are working for you who are highway users,” the article stated. “While these men are working to keep the roads in good repair and clear of snow and ice, they must constantly be on guard against some highway user who may be speeding by with little or no caution and needlessly injure men and demolish equipment.”
In further outlining the potential dangers to all of those who labor in work zone areas, the Caribou County Sun highlighted a particular group of highway workers. The article reported, “Incidentally, when there is a flagman on the road you can be sure that extra caution must be exercised.”
For many years now, flagmen (more generally known today as flagpersons or flaggers) have been an integral and important part of work zone crews across the country. In their efforts to guide traffic safely through work zones, flaggers do much to protect their fellow workers from serious injury.
The significance of this lifesaving role in the face of work zone challenges was further underscored in 1957 by C.E. Nunnally, a maintenance superintendent for the Arkansas State Highway Department (the present-day Arkansas Department of Transportation), in an article that he wrote for Arkansas Highways magazine. “Disregard of signs, flagmen, flares and the most elementary consideration for the safety of themselves or men working on the highway, by the driving public, are daily occurrences,” asserted Nunnally. “With this tendency in mind, the importance of proper signing and flagging becomes more apparent.”
Eighteen years later, the Montana-based Great Falls Tribune likewise amplified the ongoing need for effective flaggers in work zones. “It takes intelligence, patience, courage and a ready smile to be a flag person in Montana,” stated the Great Falls Tribune. “While holding a ‘stop’ or ‘slow’ sign may seem like the least important job on a construction crew, the flag person is responsible for moving both construction and normal traffic through the work zone safely.” (By that time, Montana had become the second state to implement a training course specifically for flaggers; Utah was the first state to launch such a program.)
Over the years, flaggers have endured numerous daily challenges in carrying out their duties on behalf of safer work zones. Patty Salerno, while employed as a flagger for a project on West Virginia Route 9 in the Martinsburg area during the mid-1970s, expressed overall satisfaction with her job but also voiced frustration with at least a few of the drivers traveling through that work zone. She lamented in an interview with the Maryland-based Morning Herald that “sometimes you get people who don’t pay any attention to the sign at all.”
The high-risk costs of being a flagger were even more starkly emphasized in a 1949 article appearing in the Union County Journal in central Ohio. “Recently a flagman was injured in an accident near Plain City when a motorist continued to travel at a high rate of speed despite the signs placed along the highway,” reported that newspaper. “The fact that the worker escaped death saved the driver from possible serious consequences.”
The timeless necessity of driving cautiously through work zones and heeding flaggers at those locations was similarly underscored in 1980 by Henry P. Wehrenberg, executive director of the Indiana State Highway Commission (since merged into the Indiana Department of Transportation). He said, “We urge all Hoosier drivers to do their part for safety by being alert to a flagman’s warnings and obeying them – not just because it is a violation of the law [not to], but because it is in the interest of safety for all concerned.”
For more information on the role of flaggers in work zones, please check out https://www.workzonesafety.org/?s=&fhwa_audience=0&work_zone_topics=flagging&post_type%5B%5D=publication&post_type%5B%5D=training&meta_key=fhwa_grant_product&meta_value=1&searchform=30650&provider=0 and https://www.adirondackdailyenterprise.com/opinion/columns/safety-on-the-roads-by-dave-werner/2018/07/flaggers-play-important-role-in-traffic-safety/