Do Your Workers Need High-Visibility Apparel?

Jan. 1, 2001
If your company is not following ANSI 107-1999, your employees may not be as safe as you think.

Fred Rasmussen was convinced that road construction workers with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LDOT) wore vests that made them highly visible to oncoming traffic. "We had what we thought was a pretty good vest," said the director of safety for LDOT since the early 1990s.

Yet, as with many companies and government entities across the country that have workers in a variety of low-visibility conditions, LDOT's workers were not as noticeable as they could be to oncoming traffic. Rasmussen realized, after a visibility study was done, that workers' vests were not conspicuous from all angles.

"Problems associated with vests were monumental. If a worker was viewed from the side, his visibility was lost completely. He just didn't show up," he said. "There had to be a better way."

Rasmussen visited Europe in March 1999 and was impressed by the type of high-visibility clothing worn by road construction workers. Their clothing contrasted with their work zone's background and was clearly recognizable to drivers at any angle.

Many of the requirements in the European EN 471 standard were adopted three months later in the United States as part of the American National Standards Institute's (ANSI) approval of a voluntary standard for high-visibility apparel.

A Standard Solution

Before there was a national standard, U.S. companies had few guidelines for determining the best design, performance specifications and use of high-visibility apparel for their work sites. What guidelines existed dealt mainly with flaggers, such as the Federal Highway Administration's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and OSHA's construction standard on signaling, which states in 29 CFR 1926.201(a)(4) that "flagmen shall be provided with and shall wear a red or orange warning garment while flagging. Warning garments worn at night shall be of reflectorized material."

Because there was not a nationwide consensus for how to achieve high-visibility safety, injuries and fatalities continued to be a problem at road construction sites. In 1998, for example, 104 workers were killed in work zones. The concern likely will grow because road construction sites are expected to increase in number by 66 percent over the next six years. The issue was serious enough to prompt OSHA in April to launch hundreds of targeted inspections of road construction zones in Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio.

With the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) serving as secretariat, the American National Standard for High-Visibility Apparel (ANSI/ISEA 107-1999) was approved June 1, 1999. The standard provides guidelines not only for road construction employees, but also railway and utility workers, law enforcement and emergency response personnel, survey and airport ground crews, and others routinely exposed to hazards of low visibility. High-visibility garments are available in vests, jackets, coveralls, rainwear and harnesses.

The voluntary standard is in response to concerns that U.S. workers exposed to low-visibility hazards are not wearing appropriate apparel. As a result, these workers face hazards of being struck by vehicles and other types of moving equipment stemming from the inability of others, including fellow workers, to see them.

"There is a real need to protect people who work in situations that make it difficult to be seen," said Janice Comer Bradley, CSP, ISEA's technical director. "Low-visibility hazards are an even greater risk where there are complex backgrounds, as found in many occupations such as working on foot in close proximity to construction equipment and vehicle roadway traffic. Vehicle operators cannot recognize a worker who is wearing inadequate or nonenhanced-visibility clothing in sufficient time to avoid an accident."

The standard, designed to provide 360-degree visibility of workers, has performance criteria associated with background material that has fluorescent properties to provide visibility in the daytime and retroreflective material that shines back light to the source at night.

"The beauty of this standard," Bradley said, "is the worker doesn't have to concern himself with whether it's daylight-saving time or whether a delivery was delayed and he will be working in the dusk. These garments function day and night."

Daylight Visibility

Three fluorescent colors (yellow-green, orange-red and red) for background material are designed to provide contrast with prevailing ambient backgrounds found in daytime urban and rural situations. For example, yellow-green might not be appropriate in a wooded area, nor should orange-red be worn in a work zone with orange or red equipment or barrels.

"There are proven studies that if a person has on a fluorescent garment that can be seen at a distance, [drivers] gain reaction time," Bradley said. "It draws attention to that person and makes them different from the rest of the background."

To be compliant with the ANSI standard, the background material's fabric must be one of the three colors and remain fluorescent to a certain level after several launderings. Fabrics that will maintain fluorescent qualities include polyester, nylon and acrylic, said Alan Tencer, chief executive officer of OccuNomix International, a maker of high-visibility garments based in Port Jefferson State, N.Y. "For a garment to be bright enough, it has to be a relatively closed material, meaning tightly knitted or woven."

Mesh and cotton may be favored by workers in warm climates, but cannot be made bright enough to be ANSI-compliant, Tencer said. "It's the only concern about the new garments that we hear over and over again. If it's too warm, a worker will not wear it or will have heat stress problems." At this time, he added, the garment industry has few solutions, other than dealing with heat stress in some other way.

In addition, Tencer said, it is hard to produce a fluorescent fabric that also is flame-retardant, an important issue for occupations such as utility workers who need both types of protection. He predicts that there will be products that meet both needs on the market within a year or two.

Low-Light Visibility

The crux of the standard is three conspicuity classes to help users determine minimum amounts of retroreflective material, color and placement of material for each low-light work situation. These classes, identified on labels of ANSI-compliant apparel, are based on worker hazards and tasks, complexity of the work environment or background, and vehicular traffic and speed.

Class 1 garments, typically vests, are for users who have ample separation from vehicular traffic that does not exceed 25 mph and where the background is not complex. Parking service attendants, workers in warehouses with equipment traffic, shopping cart retrievers, sidewalk maintenance workers and delivery vehicle drivers fall into this classification.

Class 2 apparel, also available as vests, is intended for users who need greater visibility in inclement weather conditions and whose activities occur near roadways where traffic speeds exceed 25 mph. Workers performing tasks that divert their attention from approaching traffic should wear Class 2 garments, which provide more retroreflective material than Class 1 apparel. These tasks become more hazardous when performed in close proximity to vehicles with little or no separation between the person and traffic. Those in this classification include railway workers, school crossing guards, parking and toll gate personnel, airport ground crews and law enforcement personnel directing traffic.

Class 3 garments have the most retroreflective material and provide the highest level of visibility. They provide conspicuity to workers with high-task loads in a wide range of weather conditions where traffic exceeds 50 mph. Class 3 garments, which include striping on the torso, arms and legs, are recommended for roadway construction personnel and vehicle operators, utility workers, survey crews, emergency responders, railway workers and accident site investigators.

Confusion about speed-limit recommendations between classes 2 and 3 has existed since ANSI approved the standard, according to Gary Pearson, market development manager for 3M Personal Safety Products, which provides Scotchlite reflective material for high-visibility garments.

Just because workers may be in work zones where traffic exceeds 50 mph, they may not need a Class 3 garment, Pearson said. "Many assume they fall into Class 3, but don't want to abide by requirements for covering more than the torso, mainly due to summertime conditions. So they want a Class 3 vest, which would have to be very large to accommodate the amount of retroreflective material required."

Companies should look at other conditions, not just speed, for assessing hazards and risk, Pearson contends. For example, consider workers' proximity to traffic. Is there a barricade between traffic and workers? "If they do a hazard assessment," he said, "in many cases, they will find that Class 2 is sufficient."

Other Precautions

In addition to adhering to ANSI 107-1999, companies can follow other steps to ensure that their employees are visible.

Stephen Prozinski, risk management director for D.H. Blattner & Sons, a national highway and railroad construction contractor based in Avon, Minn., offers several tips to increase the safety and visibility of workers:

  • Remember that unseen workers not only can be injured by automobiles, but also by equipment such as earth movers and cranes.
  • Maintain radio contact between workers on the ground and inside equipment. If radio communication is not possible, establish eye contact with the operator before approaching any piece of equipment.
  • Put retroreflective tape on hard hats. This is especially beneficial for companies that require workers to wear hard hats, but not vests.
  • To control traffic speed at road construction sites, hire police officers to maintain a presence at the beginning of the work zone. "If you get a police officer there with the lights flashing," Prozinski said, "that really helps drivers slow down."
  • Use a "pilot car" to lead vehicles through long, one-lane construction projects. This also will help control traffic speed.

Louisiana's DOT chose to change the color of its equipment to contrast with workers, Rasmussen said. Instead of paying extra to have equipment painted orange, the agency now orders the machinery in factory white and adds retroreflective striping.

Nonconstruction Situations

Safety professionals in companies apart from the construction industry need to remember that there may be situations at their work sites that call for high-visibility clothing, said George Swartz, who recently retired as director of safety and occupational health for Midas International in Itasca, Ill. "They've got to think a little deeper into the process so they know whether they need this reflective clothing."

One example is a factory or a warehouse in an older city, especially in the East, where industrial zoning abuts a residential area. In this situation, a forklift may cross residential streets. Workers need to wear high-visibility garments even if the forklift has reflectors, Swartz said, because these workers may not be on the vehicle all the time.

Swartz also suggests that high-visibility garments and special-color hard hats be worn by a company's emergency squad so they can be seen in a smoke-filled area to direct workers to exits.

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