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How to Stand Out in an Unsafe Environment

By: Maureen Paraventi

Federal regulations mandate high visibility clothing for workers in road construction zones. © Valmedia – stock.adobe.com

High visibility workwear seems simple enough. It visually stands out, so that the wearer can be seen in all kinds of circumstances. It comes in bright colors like yellow and orange, and in a variety of garment types: vests, pants, bibs, rain gear and bomber jackets, to name a few. It can be on lightweight items that don’t contribute to heat stress during hot weather or in toasty indoor environments, or even on thermal overalls, for people who have to work outdoors on frosty winter days or in refrigerated spaces. It is worn by workers repairing roads and bridges, working on construction sites or in factories and warehouses. High visibility clothing is a relatively simple member of the personal protective equipment (PPE) club, which is filled with devices and structures that are complex and ever-evolving, thanks to manufacturers who strive to incorporate ever-emerging technological developments and newly minted materials into their designs.

But is high visibility clothing really simple? Not really. It is only possible because of an understanding of the way the human eye works. In low light environments, the eye is most sensitive to fluorescent color properties that stand out from the background, and less to other colors along the visible spectrum, which it tends to “gray” out. Even in low light, such as foggy or rainy weather or toward dusk, fluorescent colors appear to “glow” due to the way they absorb the sun’s ultraviolet rays and then emit light. In darkness, though, it is reflective strips that enhance the visibility of an object, by reflecting light back at its source, like a vehicle’s headlights.

Consequently, high visibility apparel that has both fluorescent and reflective materials in it will help protect the wearer in any level of light: fluorescent for day, reflective for night.

Which is the best color?

Fluorescent yellow-green scores highest in eye sensitivity, and while that should factor into a company’s purchasing decision, the specifics of the work environment in which the garments will be worn should also be considered. What colors are predominant? What kind of background will the garments have to provide a contrast to? In the midst of greenery, bright orange might provide a stronger contrast than yellow green. The same might be true for workers who have to perform tasks near company trucks that are bright green.

Who should wear it?

High visibility clothing should be worn by any employee who must work near moving vehicles or equipment. © Andi – stock.adobe.com

High visibility clothing should be worn by any employee who must work near moving vehicles or equipment or near hazardous materials, especially in low-light environments. It can – and should – be found on construction sites, near earthmoving equipment and in warehouses and distribution centers, where workers must share aisles with forklift trucks. It is essential in roadwork, where employees are at risk from both the machinery being used onsite and the motorists who are driving past them. Flaggers providing temporary traffic control (TTC) in order to protect their co-workers from motorists as well as workers in the vicinity of in-use backhoes and asphalt pavers are all potentially exposed to struck-by hazards.

Utility workers, firefighters, airport ground crew, tow truck operators, police officers (especially those doing traffic control), railway workers, tree service employees, heavy equipment operators, garbage collectors, shipyard workers, toll booth operators, crossing guards, security guards, shopping cart attendants and many other types of workers have enhanced safety while wearing high visibility garments.

On a national level, the Federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices 2009[1] mandates high visibility clothing for high maintenance and road construction workers. OSHA’s interpretation[2] of that manual specifies that it must be worn by workers:

  • Doing highway maintenance projects
  • In road construction zones, or
  • Who are exposed to public vehicular traffic or construction equipment

Other industries should be guided by OSHA’s general duty clause, under which companies and business owners are required to provide “employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

High visibility gear in a variety of forms has also been adapted for use by the general public. Runners, bicyclists and pedestrians who must sometimes share the road with cars and trucks wear vests and caps (and smart bicyclists who bike at night also have reflective tape on their bikes). Parents equip their kids with backpacks, hoodies and vests that help them be seen, whether its walking to school, trick-or-treating on Halloween or being in a crowd with their parents.

High visibility clothing, though, can only be effective if it’s in good condition. Dirt, dust and grime will diminish the appearance of the fluorescent and reflective materials. It’s important that they be cleaned regularly, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This generally involves wiping off loose dirt, then machine washing the apparel in cold water, on the delicate cycle of the washing machine and with like colors. When the item’s useful life is over, it should be replaced. WMHS

[1]   https://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/kno_2009r1r2.htm

[2]   https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/2009-08-05

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