High-Visibility Workwear: How We Got from There to Here

The summer road construction season is now in full swing. We all know what that means. In addition to bright orange cones and plenty of traffic delays, the daily commute will include an army of workers dressed in high-visibility workwear. We will see them in bright green, yellow, and orange with an occasional magenta thrown in.

Have you ever wondered where high-visibility clothing came from? Have you ever thought about how we got from there to here, in terms of how such clothing has evolved over time? Truth be told, it is actually quite fascinating. Also known as high-viz, high-visibility clothing traces its roots back to the 1930s.

A Florescent Fabric Paint

A number of sources, including the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA), contend that the origins of high-viz workwear can be traced back to the 1930s. As the story goes, a man by the name of Bob Switzer was injured in a factory accident when he tripped, fell, and knocked his head.

Upon emerging from a coma, Switzer was told that his vision would never be what it once was. This apparently dashed his hopes of becoming a doctor. During his recovery, Switzer and his brother, Joe, began experimenting with chemicals that could be used to enhance Joe’s magic shows. The pair eventually invented florescent paint, which Bob tested by putting it on his wife’s wedding dress.

The ISEA says that the Switzer brothers were responsible for developing the Day-Glo paint brand. From their business venture came efforts by the U.S. government to come up with its own luminescent paints for use during World War II.

Modern High-Visibility Clothing

Fast forward to the 1960s and a small group of railway workers in Glasgow, Scotland. They were issued high-visibility vests to keep them safer at night. It worked so well that government officials in both Britain and the U.S. started working on official safety standards. Meanwhile, the vests were issued to all workers on the West Coast Main Line in 1965. British legislation drafted in 1974 and 1992 made high-visibility clothing mandatory for certain professions.

High-visibility standards were enacted in the U.S. in 1999. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) created multiple scenarios, divided into three classes, for which workers should be required to wear high-viz workwear.

The standards have been in place ever since, with addendum’s made in 2006 and 2007. Our standards in the U.S. are not all that different from those in the UK and the EU.

Who Wears High-Viz Clothing

According to Salt Lake City-based Alsco, quite a few professions use high-visibility uniforms. Road construction and railway workers have already been discussed but stop and think about all of the others you have seen over the years. Building construction workers immediately come to mind. They wear high-viz clothing so that equipment operators can see them.

Police officers wear high-viz vests when they are out directing traffic. Firefighters wear coats and pants either made with high-viz fabrics or equipped with high-viz tape so that they can be seen inside buildings even when the power has been cut.

Others include:

  • utility workers
  • airport workers
  • heavy equipment operators
  • oil rig workers
  • military personnel
  • refuse collectors

The list goes on and on. Anywhere workers are at risk of accidents involving vehicles or other workers, you will find high-visibility clothing. From factories to industrial warehouses, high-viz workwear keeps workers safe by making them easier to see. And to think, it all started with two brothers who wanted to make magic shows more exciting. One man’s excitement is another man’s safety.