Orange cones and concrete barricades still may be the norm for keeping workers and drivers safe on road construction projects, but movable barriers are being used more often as owners and contractors look to improve safety and productivity.

Such systems—whether they're called mobile barriers, movable barriers, protective beams or zipper walls—generally include a prime mover plus a metal blocking section that extends between the work zone and traffic.

The barriers are used largely on congested road, highway and bridge projects, from paving to expansions, and can be driven to the construction site and moved as needed. These systems can include power generators, work lighting and signage, too. Prices vary depending on size but can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Barriers also are often leased.

The leading companies that manufacture these products—which are designed to make workers safer but also improve traffic flow and cut project duration and cost—include Mobile Barriers LLC of Golden, Colo., and Barrier Systems Inc. of Rio Vista, Calif.

The California Dept. of Transportation (Caltrans) developed its own technology called the Balsi Beam, named after Mark Balsi, a Caltrans maintenance worker severely injured when a car crashed into a work zone where he was picking up trash. Created in the early 2000s, the Balsi Beam system consists of a tractor-trailer combination. The trailer becomes a work space between the rear axles and the tractor that's shielded on one side with two steel beams.

Other agencies like the concept. "Our experience with mobile barriers is great, from the worker safety and traffic management perspectives," says Eric Hemphill, director of maintenance for the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) in Plano, Texas. "Our crews are more comfortable working behind them, and because of that, their productivity has increased." NTTA bought one of Mobile Barriers' first MBT-1 barriers about five years ago and now has two. The authority expects to get at least two more in the near future.

Work-Zone Crashes

Data from the Federal Highway Administration show there were 87,606 work-zone crashes nationwide in 2010 alone, about 1% of which included fatalities among drivers and construction workers, with 30% involving injuries. More than 20,000 workers are injured in road construction work zones every year from multiple causes, including "transportation incidents," the FHWA says.

Kevin Groeneweg, CEO of Colorado-based Mobile Barriers, calls the MBT-1 barrier "a game changer" because of its speed. "I'm just a frustrated driver," says Groeneweg. "John Barton at the Texas Dept. of Transportation said it well when he suggested the quicker we get on and off the road during a construction project and reopen it to flow, the better off we are." Barton is TxDOT's deputy executive director.

Groeneweg, who holds a law degree and a master's degree in finance from the University of Iowa and was formerly a senior officer at what's now Janus Capital Group Inc. of Denver, came up with his idea for a mobile barrier in June 2004, while stuck in a traffic jam.