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Pick the right reflectivity for your garment

High-visibility clothing is ubiquitous on construction sites - but there’s also a real danger that the clothing your staff are wearing isn’t actually compliant with European standards.

Failure to comply can have a real human cost – high-visibility wear predominantly helps prevent workers being struck by vehicle operators, and according to the HSE, this form of accident killed five people last year in construction and injured a further 110.

High-visibility garments are governed by the BS EN 471 standard, which comprises of three different classes and places strict requirements on the proportions of reflective and fluorescent materials within a piece of visibility PPE. Given that waistcoats in particular are now a disposable commodity market inasmuch as they’ll be disposed of and replaced on damage rather maintained, Arco hazardwear manager Diane Waite warns that the explosion in the availability of cheap clothing from non-specialised suppliers could leave contractors non-compliant. “There are many suppliers of waistcoats now, including even sportswear suppliers, but whether they’re designed to meet the EN standard isn’t necessarily guaranteed,” she says.

Picking the right visibility equipment also depends on more than it simply complying with the standards, says 3M pan-European portfolio manager Bill Parker. “Contractors should be looking for reflective material intended to survive the environment in which the employee is working, but should also be appropriate to the method of care to which that item will be subjected,” he says. “The important question is who is going to look after the garment? Will it be the employee who will take it home and wash it, or is it procured via a rental contract and handled by a professional laundry?”

He says that defining the answers to these questions is vital as the wrong selection can result in garments failing to comply on site. “If you’re putting together a tender for garments that will be renewed every two to three years, they need to consider how many times each garment is likely to be washed,” he says. “If, for example, that’s 20 times a year, you need to make sure the reflective material can survive the total number of expected washes.”

Supervising on site

However, simply providing staff with EN 471 compliant garments is by no means a guarantee of ensuring staff will be visible on site. Importantly, reflective material on a piece of clothing only works under certain circumstances. As the term suggests, any reflective material simply reflects the light to its original source – perfect if it’s reflecting the beam from headlights, as this will ultimately be seen by a driver, but not so useful when working in ambient lighting, which is where the colour of the garment becomes more important. For instance, workers on railways should wear garments complying with the GO/RT3279 standard, which goes above and beyond EN 471 and specifically calls for an orange colour.

However, even when wearing garments complying with the standards, contractors still need to keep an eye on their staff. “When the EN standard was written, it was assumed the garment be worn in the appropriate manner. The employer’s responsibility isn’t just to provide the PPE, but to also make sure it is well maintained and worn appropriately,” says Mr Parker. He points out that having an unbuttoned waistcoat could theoretically cause non-compliance because it changes the amount of material exposed, and that the problem becomes compounded during hot weather where workers may be inclined to reduce the amount of clothing covering them.

Ms Waite suggests that treating visibility PPE as a specialised piece of clothing can encourage workers to take better care of their garments when working and make them more inclined to wear them properly. “People are looking for a longer-lifetime garment, but also something that is perhaps more stylish as well,” she says. “There’s also a trend towards making visibility clothing more multifunctional. Traditionally people might wear jeans on site but there has been a move towards high-visibility trousers with cargo-style pockets.”

It might also sound slightly clichéd but changing the style of visibility equipment can also play a role in redressing the gender imbalance in construction, according to Ms Waite. “Providing a woman with a huge heavy high-visibility coat isn’t necessarily the best method,” she says. “We’ve made the move to create garments that are specifically sized and styled for women.” She points out that this has been something of challenge. “Once you start trimming garments and making them more shaped, then it can become a non-conforming garment as you’ve removed fluorescent material.”

Such steps might seem trivial, but encouraging staff to wear compliant garments properly, and sourcing garments that will meet the demands thrown at them by use in an intensive environment, can help workers stay clearly noticeable – and safer - on site.

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