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Flaggers Trained For Life In The Slow Lane

Construction zones are as much a part of summer as mosquitos.

We’ve all had to heed the warning signs and stop until the highway flag man - or woman- lets us pass. 

There are approximately 1,000 flaggers on Vermont highways this summer.  They work for four companies that contract the workers out to construction companies.

Most flaggers were trained directly or indirectly by a good natured man with a quick laugh and a preference for comparing work zones to the McDonald’s fast food business.

“There’s not anybody in this country that doesn’t know what to do when they see the Golden Arches,” says Richard Wobby. “ They pull in and buy fries and a cheeseburger.  Work zones have never sold themselves as well as the Golden Arches.”

Wobby is in charge of safety and education at Associated General Contractors of Vermont.

For years he has run the program that certifies flaggers and the people who train them.

Wobby wants every driver who encounters the bright orange work zone signs to act as reflexively as a famished McDonald’s patron who spots the Golden Arches.  

To accomplish that, he says work zones must be set up by the book – so they’re as consistent as the fries and burgers at McDonald’s.

A proper work zone involves signs spaced at specific distances, and the requisite number of traffic cones. 

The flagger is the one responsible for setting up and controlling the zone. 

Many flaggers are experienced but Wobby says there are also those who are at the bottom of the construction site pecking order.  

“Somebody that’s retired and looking for part time work, somebody that is a college kid out during the summer,” he says, adding, “ I’m going to have 101 contractors call me on this one, but the guy that can’t do anything else.  We’re putting everything on this little guy right here!”

Wobby says that’s why there’s training and certification for flaggers .

He’s standing at a whiteboard covered with scribbled numbers and lines, illustrating how work zones are set up and how the flagger controls them.  

Basic training involves a four hour course that includes a hands-on element.

"Believe it or not, people can look you dead in the eye and have no clue that you're there" - Flagger Lance Tardiff

A training center next to the classroom has a mock roadway where flaggers practice their skills. Wobby picks up one of the familiar Slow/Stop signs and demonstrates.

“As that car slows or stops, the flagger moves to the center of the road and holds traffic from the center of the road," he says as he steps from the side to the middle of the mock traffic lane. "The flagger never turns his back to traffic,” he explains.

Up a nearby set of stairs there’s a very real looking demonstration manhole, which is also used in the training. Wobby says flaggers should have some some understanding about the hazards of working in a confined space, in case they have to help someone in trouble.   

Beyond the basic flagger training, there are additional courses for more specialized situations, like bridge work.

Now it’s off the see the lessons in action.  The work site is along Route 2 in Bolton, where a stretch of highway is being repaved. 

On the way, Wobby explains that it irks him to see an improperly set up work zone, or one that’s left up when work isn’t taking place.  Still, he says distracted drivers are the biggest danger to workers.

Lance Tardiff stands with his “Slow/Stop” paddle at one end of the construction zone on Route 2.  The  St. Johnsbury man is in his second season as a flagger.  

“Standing in one spot most of the day, a lot of people don’t like that,” says Tardiff, who doesn’t mind the standing. He says flagging is one of those jobs that’s both boring and dangerous. 

“Believe it or not, people can look you dead in the eye and have no clue that you're there,” says Tardiff.

The close calls are memorable enough that he keeps a count.

“I had nine last year,” he says. “ I had my paddle knocked out of my hand. That’s the closest one I’ve had.”

Tardiff was trying to flag a car down as it sped past, putting himself in danger to protect the workers ahead.

This is Tardiff's only job.  He spent 25 years working for a tire retreading company before he picked up a flagger paddle.  He hasn't had any luck finding a job in the winter, when there's not much flagger work.

Just down the road Betsy Towers of Newport is standing near an interstate highway overpass. She’s been flagging for four years. Before that she worked as a machinist, but was laid off. She’s also worked as a nurse. she doesn’t see flagging as a job of last resort.

“This is something I actually enjoy,” says Towers. “ The stress level is nil, and that’s the biggest thing with me right now.”

Towers says she’s had to deal with a certain amount of driver irritation, but she doesn’t let it bother her.

“I’ve had people flip me the bird, yell, scream names. It’s just something you’ve got to let roll off your shoulders,” she says.

Flaggers can work long hours, or the weather can cut into their work time. Towers says she’s put in anywhere from 25 to nearly 60 hours per week this season.

As for the pay, most flaggers earn between $12 and $15 an hour. The wage is higher  in Chittenden county and for certain flagging jobs. The job also pays overtime.

Wobby says the flagger training is working.

He says work zone fatalities were once annual occurrences, but there’s been only one in the past five years. That, he says, was caused by a distracted driver.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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