How do you spot roadside workers behind the wheel? Closed lanes up ahead, or a tow truck hitching up a broken-down car? What about emergency responders, directing traffic around a motor vehicle crash?
We’ve all seen vibrant yellow safety vests, bright orange barrels and neon stripes directing us to the safest path. In each of these situations, bright colors play an active role in keeping both us and employees safe – and there’s more to them than meets the eye.
On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we sit down with Matt Cowell. He is the Director of Environmental Health and Safety for Emery Sapp & Sons. Most of his career has focused on highway construction, where he’s been involved in every element of safety. Cowell has nearly 30 years of experience in the safety industry.
First, we’ll explain the basics of high visibility gear. Then, we’ll talk about its everyday uses. Finally, we’ll share how employers can choose the right items for their employees.
The basics of bright colors
High visibility items (also called hi-vis or hi-viz) are marked by pops of color. These colors make it easier to see workers and equipment in many conditions. A few of the most common colors are yellow, green and pink. Before safety standards were set, employees typically work yellow- or orange-colored sweatshirts. However, high visibility isn’t just about bright colors. It’s about being seen. And regular fabric didn’t quite make the mark.
Reflective vs. retroreflective
In the late 1990s, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) set guidelines for high visibility. This meant that hi-vis wasn’t just a set of colors anymore, but a type of material. There are two types of hi-vis material: reflective and retroreflective. The difference between them is how powerfully they reflect light.
“If something is reflective, it comes back within a 45 degree angle,” Cowell began. “Being retroreflective, it comes back within a three degree angle, which makes it much brighter to somebody with lights, or any type of light source behind you.” There are a few classes of high visibility material. The level of visibility needed increases with the safety risk on the job. For example, a delivery driver might wear the lowest class. But a police officer working roadways at night would wear the highest and most visible.
“Anybody who’s working on the roadways has to have what we classify now as Class 2 retroreflective clothing during daytime and Class 3 at nighttime,” Cowell explained. “So we up the ante at night to enhance workers’ safety.” Many other items, like signs on public roadways, are now retroreflective. More hi-vis safety items are available now. For instance, hi-vis hard hats, gloves, and tape for vehicles are used on job sites and in high-traffic areas.
High visibility in action
High visibility gear keeps both people and potential safety hazards in view. Changing conditions, like fading light, rain or fog, can make it hard to spot them. Cowell finds that as people get older, they lose some of their ability to see things that are further away. Hi-vis gear and equipment helps compensate for some of that loss.
“I’ve had the misfortune of doing 18 workplace fatalities and a lot of them have been on the roadways,” he shared. “It really will change you as a human being.” Fortunately, with a few exceptions, many employees are accepting of wearing and using hi-vis gear. “You know, we always tease about when safety guy shows up. Everybody runs to their truck,” Cowell joked. “We’re actually beyond that with this particular issue.”
Staying visible in the community
“Anybody that works and does anything on a public roadway is really susceptible to this,” Cowell shared. His warning extends to non-employees, too. “You know, I encourage people that even walk at night in their subdivision to wear a vest,” he recommended. Walkers can wear vests and cyclists can highlight their bikes with hi-vis tape. Hi-vis vests are even made for kids and pets. “It just makes you that much more visible.”
Choosing the right gear
With employees willing to don hi-vis gear, and plenty of variety for employers to choose from, all that’s needed is time and effort to find the right fit. “There’s tons of options for owners,” Cowell said. “You’ve just got to spend a little bit of time and effort, and they’re not very costly to do.”
If you already use hi-vis gear on the job, it may be time to test it. High visibility has a life expectancy. Each item is rated for a certain amount of time. It may last months or years. But it’s usefulness is also affected by wear and tear, staining and washing. Cowell recommends going into a dark room and shining a flashlight on an item in question. Is it still bright? Easily seen? Some types of employees go through hi-vis gear faster than others. For example, mechanics, who work in oily and dirty conditions. Any item that is no longer in good condition should be replaced.
For employers who aren’t sure where to start looking, work comp agents and safety teams can lend a hand. “You know ,the the thing I like about this industry is we’ll give you everything we have,” Cowell finished. “There’s no pride in ownership. If we have something and you need it, here you go. You know we’re all committed to making the world safer.”
For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit our Resource Library. Then, check out this WorkSAFE Podcast episode to learn how high visibility gear and equipment can play an important role in reducing struck-by incidents in the construction industry.