Road projects place workers within inches of danger
DANGEROUS JOB – Vehicles speed past Jamie Horn, left, and Samuel Lewis last week as they work on a project to resurface portions of Interstate 20/59 west of Meridian. Horn and Lewis are employees with APAC, the nation's largest asphalt and concrete paving company. Photo by Carisa Mccain / The Meridian Star
By Fredie Carmichael / staff writer
June 30, 2002
When Jamie Horn of Meridian arrives at work everyday at about 6 a.m., the smoldering fresh asphalt of Interstate 20/59 weakens slightly under his dusty black boots.
Horn quickly dons a dingy orange helmet and a fluorescent yellow vest and then monitors the asphalt work all within inches of a steady stream of vehicles that whiz past at 60 mph, 70 mph, 80 mph or faster.
Horn is one of hundreds of people who make a living by constructing and repairing roads and highways in Mississippi a job that can sometimes turn deadly for both workers and motorists.
Within the past two months alone in Meridian, four separate accidents have ground traffic to a standstill near ongoing road construction along I-20/59 west and east of town.
The most recent accident, on June 20, turned fatal.
A 10-vehicle pileup in the eastbound lanes of I-20/59 left two dead and another critically injured. The accident happened when an 18-wheeler apparently collided with vehicles stalled because of construction.
The Federal Highway Administration in Washington has reported that more than 4,000 people have been killed nationwide in highway work-zone accidents within the last six years.
The agency said the most common accidents in a highway work zone are rear-end collisions.
In Mississippi, the state Department of Transportation said that 65 percent of the nearly 4,000 accidents reported to the agency in 2001 were caused by inattentive driving.
Also that year, four MDOT roadside workers were killed in work-zone accidents.
Jim Willis, MDOT's safety engineer, said that aggressive driving has become a major contributing factor to interstate highway accidents.
Willis said MDOT alerts motorists to road construction with orange highway signs placed miles ahead of the actual work. Some of the first signs warning of the I-20/59 work are visible 30 miles away.
Motorists also are required to reduce their speed from 70 mph to 60 mph while driving in the work zone.
Robert Dickard knows first-hand just how deadly working on Mississippi roadways can be.
Dickard lost his leg, damaged his hands and was nearly killed on May 9, 2000, when a van ran into him while he was working in the southbound lane of Interstate 55 in Holmes County.
Dickard worked at MDOT for more than 13 years as a heavy equipment operator before the accident forced him to leave the job. Today, at age 57, he's confined to a wheelchair in his home in Lexington.
Allen Burrell, a maintenance supervisor for MDOT, was working with Dickard when he was hit.
In the Meridian area, MDOT is currently working on two projects to resurface sections of I-20/59.
One, a $10.3 million project from Alabama to Highway 19, should be finished by August. The other, a $10.1 million project from 65th Avenue to Newton County, should be completed next month.
MDOT hired APAC, the nation's largest asphalt and concrete paving company, to work both projects. MDOT workers oversee the projects.
Jimmy Ivy, branch manager of Mississippi South APAC, is heading up both of the projects in Meridian. Ivy said while the work is going good, there's always the possibility of danger.
MDOT workers agreed.
Hester, 27, married and father of two, has been inspecting road construction projects for six years. Hester said he has seen several "close calls" on both Meridian projects in which workers were almost harmed.
It's also a job that leaves some workers so edgy that they make sure they hug their children tight every day before they leave for the construction site.
Horn has worked with APAC on paving projects for more than four years. And, he said, the one thing he would tell motorists to do the next time they pass road construction areas is to be more careful.