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On reflection: reflective tapes in workwear
Feature: 3/2/2007

Enlarge Image click here
As the final winter month slides inexorably by and the days grow ever longer, the amount of time British workers spend operating in the dark steadily falls. But despite the promise of sunlit evenings ahead, workers are being encouraged not to discard their high-visibility clothing.
 
Jason Wells, visibility and insulation solutions sales manager at 3M, manufacturer of the Scotchlite range of reflective tapes, said: "People have to remember that high visibility garments are there to keep you safe regardless of what time of the day it is. Both the retro-reflective and florescent aspects of a garment are key component for giving visibility in both days and nighttime condition.
 
"Also, the unpredictability of Britain's weather means that even if you're not expecting it, clouds can gather and reduce lighting levels dramatically - which can make driving condition difficult and increasing the risk of an accident."
 
Tony McCaugherty, European specifications manager at Reflexite, the longest established global major retro reflective specialist, agreed and added that the effectiveness of garments could also be affected by poor use. He explained: "You'll see people working on the roads, wearing hi-vis vests in summer, who have decided to wear the garments unfastened.
 
"Of course, that means they tend to be walking down motorways with their vests flapping open and all of the reflective elements obscured from oncoming traffic. For the vest or jacket to be effective it needs to be worn properly.
 
"Wearers need to be educated about what the garments can do and how it can reduce the risk of them being knocked over and injured or possibly killed."
 
Beads and prisms
So how does a high visibility garment work? Well, the majority of it is usually comprised of a fluorescent material; this contains a dye that, when hit by light waves in the invisible ends of the spectrum, produces Enlarge Image click herevisible light. This creates a glow, enhancing visibility in the morning and evening when light levels are low.
 
But for anyone working on the roads or near moving vehicles at night, the most important feature of hi-vis clothing is retroreflective tape, which reflects light straight back at oncoming cars, ensuring that workers remain visible to drivers.
 
There are two types of reflective tape available; one uses millions of glass micro beads, which bend light back to the driver, and the other uses microscopic prisms to retro-reflect the incoming light.
 
Tony said: "Reflexite invented microprismatic technology, and it is now employed in many areas that demand high performance retroreflectivity, Emergency services vehicle livery and safety garments, traffic cones as well as road signs.
 
"Also, prismatic lenses are encapsulated in a layer of transparent plastic, which ensures that the prisms maintain their highest reflection in rainfall, when the risks are greater."
 
In the end, however, both methods - if supplied by reputable companies - will live up to the EN standards, so the question is really down to which one will suit your needs best, and you'll have to make that decision yourself.
Problems with imported reflective goods
It's not just about knowing what you want, however; you also have to know what you don't want - and buying Enlarge Image click herehigh visibility clothing can be a difficult business. For one thing, you need to check that you're really getting what you're being sold.
 
Tony explained: "We've had trouble over the past few years with people claiming to sell Reflexite tapes on their products when what they're really selling is inferior tape made in the Far East,known commonly as ‘counterfeit’.
 
"We've had to take legal action and have recently added the name Reflexite into the tape itself to give people some assurance that it's a Reflexite product.
 
"Of course, if people are concerned that they're not being sold genuine Reflexite products they can contact us to check - through our ISO Quality system we can trace the history of the products."
 
Jason of 3M agreed that cheap products from the Far East were causing potentially fatal problems in the UK. He said: "One of the big issues that we're seeing in the industry is an influx of cheap products being imported that do not comply with EN471 and are being bought by manufacturers looking to source the cheapest product possible.
 
At the end of the day, you get what you pay for." 

Knowing what you need
Sometimes, however, even major companies sell unsuitable goods, simply though ignorance. Tony explained: "Last year, a major supermarket was found to Enlarge Image click herebe selling hi-vis workwear with technical and quality problems, but the people selling it and the people buying it had no idea to look for EN471 conformance. You really need to know what to look for."
 
Jason elaborated: "You need to make sure that whatever product you're buying is suitable for what you want to put it through, whether that's a high temperature environment or a dusty environment, or even high-temperature washes. You need to take all of this into account."
 
A final point is that while both 3M and Reflexite allow people to buy their tape in rolls and apply it to clothing, this isn't the same as buying genuine hi-vis clothing.
 
Tony said: "We get parents buying tapes to put on their children's coats or cyclists buying it for their cycling clothes. However, it's important to remember that while applying tape to clothing will make it visible, it won't make it specification compliant.
 
"Workwear has to be manufactured to certain specifications and officially certified before it meets European standards. While do-it-yourself hi-vis garments may pass the test in theory, it doesn't make them legal for work use." 

Where to look
So there's a lot to consider when buying hi-vis garments, not least the pressure to find a reliable supplier. But where to look for one?
 
Both Tony and Jason recommend the Retroreflective Equipment Manufacturers' Association (REMA) as a good place to start. This independent organisation was set up as a central point for the industry over 30 years ago in order to better put forward the views of manufacturers to government agencies, standards authorities and end users.
 
Each member must abide by a code of practice to ensure certain ethical and quality standards are maintained. This means that their website is effectively a directory of reliable hi-vis companies.
 
Alternatively, people with specific questions and problems regarding safety that aren't answered by its website can call REMAfor impartial advice.
Author: James Wilkinson
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