Reliance on PPE impedes safety progress

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.

Kevin Jones

6 thoughts on “Reliance on PPE impedes safety progress”

  1. That is an interesting piece. And your arguments sound logical, it does sound like today there is not always a need for high visibility clothing or hearing protection, for example. Though, it is still impossible to imagine PPE disappear, in fact even thinking about it is scary. Probably, that\’s because we are so used to it and it became an integral part of any workplace in industries such as construction or mining. However it is for sure unacceptable to rely on PPE. This shouldn\’t ever be the basis of company\’s safety as this is simply not enough.

  2. A couple of years ago I was driving in the dandenongs and an army reservist in camo crossed the road in front of me and blended in the background of trees to be almost invisible fortunately this was the middle of the day ,and I could brake in time.
    I would like to see all motorbike riders and passengers wear reflective vests and even a reflective band around the helmet and that all motorcyclists are required to wear safety purpose designed jackets to prevent or minimise spinal damage ,these have been available for some time .
    it should not be a concern that some riders may not be able to show off their colurs this way

    1. Mick, I am not sure of the basis for objections from motorcyclists but as a former motorcyclist myself, I looked cooler in a black leather jacket than I do in a fluoro vest. However, I ride now for safety not fashion.

  3. One reader has already provided these links:

    Case control study of motor cyclists in NZ wearing light colored clothing or helmets are from one third to a half less likely to be in a collision: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14742349

    Cohort study of bicyclists in NZ wearing fluorescent clothing four times less likely to be injured in a collision: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18245309

    On motorcycle safety I would add the Hurt Report –
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurt_Report ;
    a June 2010 report \”Evaluation of the Visibility of Workers\’ Safety Garments during Nighttime Highway-Maintenance Operations\”;
    A MUARC report into Motorcycle Crash Countermeasures – http://www.monash.edu.au/miri/research/reports/muarc087.pdf

    However, the article, and this blog, is about workplace safety and I would be particularly interested in research into high-visibility clothing in traditional worksites.

    I acknowledge that motorcycle couriers and pizza deliverers are work activities and high visibility clothing should be worn however my point about risk assessment stands. Indeed, it can be asked why a pizza deliverer should be clothed in bright colours but the motorcycle is black? If visibility is the key consideration, an assessment of motorcycle colours may be warranted.

  4. If memory serves….

    in Victoria, orange vests were advocated for truck drivers by the Coroner after a 1991 fatality. It grew from there.

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