Dec 28, 2000

Reflective material: How much is enough?

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.

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