There is an increasing call for the mandatory wearing of high-visibility clothing for motorcycle riders around the world. The reason is to make motorcyclist more visible to car drivers and other road users. This sounds logical and sensible and is, in some way, based on the prominence of high-visibility clothing in the industrial sectors of manufacturing, construction and others. But is this a matter of policy based on evidence or a broad application of logic or a “common sense”?
As the requirement for high visibility clothing has been in workplaces longer than on motorcyclists it is worth looking for evidence of the effectiveness of high visibility clothing in workplaces. A brief survey of some of the research literature has been unsuccessful in locating much research into this issue. (We always welcome input from readers on this). Wikipedia traces high-visibility clothing back to Scottish railways in the early 1960s, where
“Train drivers operating in these areas were asked their opinion as to the effectiveness of the jackets.”
It would seem the choice of high visibility clothing has stemmed from assessing a workplace, determining the dominant colour of that workplace or environment and then examining the colour wheel (above) to choose a colour of the greatest contrast, thereby providing a high visibility. The safety literature is full of articles that advocate the use of high visibility clothing. Industrial Safety & Hygiene News is typical. In a 2010 article called “Hi-viz clothing offers standout protection in the danger zone” (not available free online), the author, Brian Schmidt, writes:
“High-visibility apparel is one of the most prominent needs for all workers who perform tasks near moving vehicles or equipment and is recognized as a critical issue for worker safety.”
OHS regulators recommend high-visibility clothing for some circumstances, often for working near traffic or forklifts. This is usually recommended as part of a risk assessment process but this type of clothing has become a default safety setting and one that is often mandatory in a workplace. It is common for a risk assessment to be undertaken, the “solution” of high-visibility clothing to be chosen and the risk never to be reassessed. It may be that the workplace or environment has changed to an extent that the high-visibility clothing is no longer as effective but everyone keeps wearing it with the same perception of safety.
High visibility clothing, being an element of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), is the lowest order of risk controls but is an enormous industry sector and often generates heated discussion. These discussions usually occur outside of the context of risk controls and can involve whether vests are zipped up or open, whether vests have faded and therefore no longer meet a specific colour Standard, whether the reflective tape is still reflective or why a different coloured vest is required on roads compared to construction sites. This type of discussion generates a level of debate that, if directed to higher order controls, may be of benefit.
There is no doubt reality has shown that high-visibility clothing works in that it improves the visibility of the individual wearer but it could be argued that reliance on this control measure has impeded progress in developing control measures that could be more effective for the individual and for the broader workforce. There are manufacturing workplaces where no one wears hearing protection as noise levels have been minimised. There are warehouses where high visibility clothing is not needed as pedestrians are always separated from forklifts.
Engineering controls show much greater effectiveness in keeping people safe. Workplaces need to focus more on these higher levels of control because if companies truly value their employees, as they say, if companies truly believe their work and safety management has a social value, as they say, they would not be relying on personal protective equipment, such as high-visibility clothing, because it is an easy convenient solution.