High-Visibility Garments: Employers and Workers Take a New Look; Street-Smart Workers Are Asking for Safety Apparel That Goes "Beyond the Vest"

Article excerpt

The head of a midwestern safety apparel maker says he knows when his products are being used to enhance visibility. "People come up to one of my customers--a state DOT manager or a private contractor--and they say, 'You must be doing a lot of hiring. I see your guys everywhere.'"

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If roadway construction workers, first responders and others in high-risk jobs seem more visible, there are several explanations. First, a standard adopted in 1999 and updated in 2004 specifies the requirements for high-visibility safety apparel and allows for an expanded range of recommended garment designs. At the same time, garment manufacturers have introduced garments featuring new fabrics, new designs and more functionality. And finally, because the garments are comfortable, functional and attractive, workers are more likely to wear them.

The first part of the equation--the standard--is relatively clear-cut. In the past two years, both the accepted industry standard (the American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel, known as ANSI/ISEA 107-2004) and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) have been revised. The ANSI/ISEA 107 revision expanded the acceptable designs of safety apparel and clarified the distinctions among the garment classes. The MUTCD changes included a provision that workers on federally funded highways wear high-visibility safety apparel compliant with the ANSI/ISEA standard, per the guidelines.

The reasons for standardized high-visibility garments are well known to anyone who works in and around construction or road traffic. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, struck-by-vehicle accidents accounted for 336 fatalities across all industries in 2003. These are higher-risk professions and there are more roadway work zones (up 30-60 percent in the past five years), according to a 3M White Paper, "A Safety Profile of Roadway Construction Workers."

And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that road workers are eight times more likely to be injured than the average worker and twice as likely as other construction workers. Some of these accidents are linked to low-visibility, according to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study. According to this 2001 analysis, "Highway workers, regardless of their assigned task, work in conditions of low lighting, low visibility, and inclement weather."

A standard for high-visibility apparel was a good first step in improving the situation, but not enough to prompt workers who should wear high-visibility garments actually to do so. For example, a 2002 survey commissioned by the International Safety Equipment Association showed that lack of style and comfort was a key reason why some workers did not wear safety vests when needed.

While traditional vests still have a role to play, they are now being supplemented with a surprising range of new choices. In warm weather situations, for example, high-visibility apparel can be made of ultra-lightweight knit fabrics or materials that accelerate the evaporation of body moisture. For cold climates, workers can rely on new garments that incorporate warm, lightweight insulation. And these materials are being fashioned into an expanded variety of approved worker garments, including short- or long-sleeved shirts, shorts, rainwear, gloves, headgear, jackets and parkas that provide enhanced visibility in low light when illuminated by headlights. …