Reflective material: How much is enough?

Dec. 28, 2000
On May 23, 1994, a tragedy occurred on a Minnesota highway. While crossing a thoroughfare posted with work signs, a construction worker, wearing a safety vest, was struck and killed by an oncoming vehicle.

Although it was the state's only fatal accident involving a construction worker in 1994, this was not an isolated incident. In fact, 12 motorists also died that year in work-zone-related accidents on Minnesota highways. Over the past five years, Minnesota has recorded nearly 14,000 reported work-zone accidents, resulting in more than 6,000 injuries and 57 deaths. Currently, approximately 15,000 state, city and county employees work on and around Minnesota's highways.

Concerned over the number and severity of construction-work-zone accidents, the Minnesota DOT (Mn/DOT) set about improving the safety of both highway employees and motorists. Although the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) currently requires both workers who hold the stop/go signs within a work-zone and all workers exposed to traffic to wear high-visibility garments-orange, yellow, yellow-green or fluorescent vests, shirts or jackets for daytime visibility, and orange, yellow, yellow-green, white, silver or fluorescent retroreflective material visible at 1,000 ft for nighttime visibility-Mn/DOT recognized that the level of reflective protection required was not sufficient to prevent injury or death on the highway.

Having made this commitment, Mn/DOT next asked how much reflective material is enough to make its highway workers sufficiently visible during times of low-visibility to reduce the risk of sustaining serious injuries.

To help answer this question Mn/DOT called on two Minnesota-based companies specializing in reflectivity; 3M, the manufacturer of 3M Scotchlite Reflective Material, and Head Lites Corp., a company specializing in creating high-visibility products, together created a set of proposed high-visibility garment specifications.

The test garments are fluorescent yellow in color as opposed to orange-the color most associated with construction work zones-although vertical and horizontal orange stripes are included, and they incorporate Scotchlite reflective material. In addition, the test garments include pants as well as the vest, shirt or jacket required by the MUTCD. The two-piece garments emphasize the human element within a work zone and provide greater visibility at a distance, particularly during high-risk nighttime construction. The combination of the fluorescent and reflective materials in particular make the test garments more visible than the current garments.

"Mn/DOT is the first state that I'm aware of to take such a leading role to protect its employees by enhancing the likelihood that motorists will see highway workers," said Janice LaFrance, market development supervisor with 3M's safety and security systems division. "The fluorescence of the test garments offers increased daytime visibility, and the retroreflectivity offers increased visibility during inclement weather and low-light conditions."

Current high-visibility garments are often considered bulky, uncomfortable and hot. In an effort to ensure the new garments will be more comfortable, highway workers are participating in the pilot program and will offer feedback on the specific design and make-up of the garments. A number of changes to the vests have already been incorporated, including side vents for cooling and adjustable fasteners.

Gary Lesley, president of Head Lites Corp. and board member of the American Society for Testing and Materials, feels the final specifications will meet the performance needs of construction and maintenance departments in Minnesota and other states.

"In terms of performance, comfort, launderability and durability, these test garments are superior to anything I've ever seen," he said. "With input from the workers who will wear the garments, the final product will be user-friendly."

The first DOT to offer a garment that combines increased visibility, better performance, the use of an alternate color, and two-piece garments, Minnesota's DOT is leading the way in improving work-zone safety. Results of a Mn/DOT survey of those highway workers participating in the spec program verify that construction workers and motorists agree.

"[I'm] more visible to the motoring public," stated one worker. Several workers agreed, stating that they felt the new garments allowed them to stand out from the orange vehicles. Others said they felt very visible and much safer. "I saw how visible [my] coworkers were and I knew I was the same," said another employee.

Motorists, too, commented on the garments, many stating that the workers wearing the garments were "highly visible" and that the garments offered "excellent visibility." Several motorists compared other highway workers to those Mn/DOT workers participating in the program.

Such positive reactions have convinced Mn/DOT that it is, without a doubt, moving in the right direction with its current work-zone-safety campaign. While the specifications are still being improved, feedback from highway workers will lead to garments that offer a much higher level of 24-hour visibility and performance in and around the construction work zone.

The Minnesota DOT exists, as does any other DOT, to provide a viable, effective transportation system. This includes not only designing, constructing and maintaining the roadway systems but also providing a safer environment for workers. For the past 10 years, Mn/DOT has taken the lead in making safety a critical part of its mission.

"Minnesota is a very progressive state," said Lesley. "Every DOT is watching this program. If the workers like the garments, if safety records increase, if the specs get written into the MUTCD as standards, we'll see a lot of states following Minnesota's lead."

Mn/DOT has set several high goals for its current specification program including increasing 24-hour, four-season visibility in and around a construction work zone; changing drivers' attitudes and behaviors when driving through a work zone; requiring all of Mn/DOT's 2,000 highway workers to wear the high-visibility retroreflective garments that meet the final specification; and, ultimately, incorporating Mn/DOT's specifications into the MUTCD so that highway workers will be more visible to motorists.

If Mn/DOT succeeds in its efforts, clearly, Minnesota will pave the way for construction-work-zone and worker safety nationwide. With a little vision, Mn/DOT is creating a lot of visibility, ultimately, it is hoped, opening the eyes of drivers and other DOTs.

About the Author

Bill Servatius

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