The machines and work tools we rely on every day have changed and evolved. Yet we still rely on reflective tape, a product developed in the 1970s, to keep workers safe and visible in high-risk situations all around the world. Perhaps it’s time to consider other alternatives.
Reflective striping was invented in the early 1970s as a means to help keep rail workers in the United Kingdom safe on the job. Forty years later, retroreflective striping has become the standard on construction jobsites around the world.
However, there has not been any significant advancement in this technology since it was created. New prismatic taping is an incremental improvement, but tape and other reflective surfaces remain dependent on an exterior source of light to illuminate them and (hopefully) the wearer. Due to this dependency, tape is limited in its overall ability to keep workers visible.
According to OSHA, the top four causes of construction fatalities are falls, struck-by, caught-in/between and electrocution. In 2012, 775 people died on construction jobsites in the United States. Working on a construction jobsite especially is dangerous, due to all the personnel, machinery and heavy equipment on site. Adding to the mix are dark situations and low-light areas where these dangers become even more perilous.
Lighting solutions can help personnel on site be safer and more visible, but they also have their own limitations. Generally, most on-site lighting is designed to illuminate an area of the worksite. Area lighting, however, is not easily mobile and often depends on diesel-fuel generators or some type of semi-permanent electrical utility. This often results in the need for electrical cabling snaking through certain sites, creating additional trip hazards.
In addition to trip hazards, large area lighting often washes out the illuminated area, making it difficult to distinguish personnel from equipment. Alternatively, task lighting is not designed to keep workers safe and visible. When dependent on task lighting, workers often have to fight against shadows cast on their workspace. The right solution should help to illuminate the worker and the work area, making it easier and safer to get the job done.
Lighting as an Active Safety System
In the 21st century, proper safety measures not only should protect the person wearing or using the gear, but also allow other employees and mechanical systems to be aware of that person. That fundamentally will increase overall jobsite safety. Active safety systems will help personnel be seen without depending on a secondary source of power or illumination – a marked improvement over reflective tape and other passive systems.
When personnel are visible from all directions at all times, the jobsite is a safer place for everyone. Being seen at all times not only makes the wearers more visible, but also allows them to communicate in new ways on the jobsite. This can be done with different light signals and flashes as well as through integrated software platforms that communicate across the job to multiple mobile devices.
Active safety systems do more than just help someone be seen; they also help us see. Static lighting systems are not personal and reflective tape does nothing to help us see. Falls regularly are caused by slips and trips. Making it possible for personnel to always see their surroundings – no matter where they move – is a great way to help reduce accidents and to help them do their job better. After all, if you always are struggling to get enough light on your workspace, how are you supposed to be able to accomplish your job safely and effectively?
Advancements in technology are making these active, personal solutions easier to access and at a cheaper cost. To build an active safety system on site years ago either would have been impossible or impossibly costly, but solutions are emerging that put such systems within reach.
Battery technology is changing how we use power tools and equipment. New lighting technologies like LEDs are changing how we can illuminate workers and work areas. And software is changing how we design, bid, build, manage and oversee worksites. These changes provide us with real opportunities to consider achievable solutions in personal safety.
Safety equipment constantly is evolving, with new solutions for air monitoring, personal protective equipment, machinery and tools being introduced on an annual basis. Tools and solutions are available today to make our jobsites safer and more productive in terms of visibility for workers. Reflective tape and striping are no longer the only line of defense; a larger system of active personal safety solutions is available to keep our workers safe and visible.
Max Baker is CEO of ILLUMAGEAR, a Seattle-based company focused on improving worker safety in risky environments and bringing innovative products to market that define a new category of safety gear.