How often have you stood on the pavement waiting to cross the road and felt as if the car passing missed you by a hair’s breadth?  Imagine how a worker feels working in that environment daily. 

Construction workers are often expected to work in highly trafficked areas, with high traffic counts, and where the level of their visibility could determine their life expectancy.  Vehicles travel at speeds of 60km to 160km/hr on our roads. 

Consider how visible workers are when you are travelling at high speeds.  If they are wearing dark blue overalls with small bibs, how visible are they against the dark backdrop of the bitumen topped road surface? 

They are really not very visible at all.  Traditionally, personal protective equipment (PPE) is issued without much thought or consideration for the safety and health of the wearer. 

The construction industry has two main sectors, namely building and civils.  The building and civil sectors often work together, but there are specializations within each sector. 

Civil contractors generally work on roads, bridges and are involved with infrastructure development.  Building contractors work on top structures, single and multi story buildings. 

PPE requirements may be different in both of these sectors.  Visibility of workers is important in all construction sectors, but more so in the civil sector, where workers are exposed to high levels of passing traffic. 

My article examines various roles of those involved with working on roads, mainly the civil sector.  The workers noted in Figure 1 are more visible from a distance in their orange clothing and white hard hats.


Figure 1.  Visibility at a ‘Stop-go’ (Deacon, 2009).

What is PPE supposed to do?

PPE is not supposed to be provided unless consideration has been given to the type of work, and that the environment in which work is to be done has been assessed and risks reduced. 

In the construction sector the requirement to assess the need and effectiveness of PPE is no less than any other industry. 

If anything, even more consideration is needed, as the environment in which a construction worker works often changes, as do the risks.  Construction can be very complex, with many components and large numbers of contractors.

How does one assess the need for high visibility PPE in the civil construction sector?  There are a number of ways where the need to determine what is needed. 

The initial requirement is to assess the design and designer (architect and engineers) requirements during the design phase.  Specific activities need to be assessed during ongoing daily activities of construction too. 

A number of aspects are discussed that identify roles and responsibilities relative to the identification and assessment of PPE required during two of the main construction phases.

Identification of PPE requirements during design phase

The health and safety (H&S) professional or Agent appointed to act for a Client is expected to be able to assess and limit potential project risks.  The information that is gathered would eventually be included in an H&S specification, and used by all the contractors on a project. 

Limiting project risk, and determining the need for PPE can be done in a number of ways. The H&S Agent should determine the scope of work, assess where the work will be done, and what risks may be associated with the project. 

The Engineers assess the traffic counts on roads to determine the need for a particular design.  The information gathered for the traffic counts should be used to determine the level of risk to workers form the traffic itself. 

An example of what workers could be exposed to, include anything from a few thousand 18-wheeler vehicles, to just a few cars in an urban area per day. 

Workers on road construction have a further risk to which they are exposed.  They are exposed to working close to large plant. 

Large plant such as excavators, articulated dump trucks (ADTs) etc. have very large blind spots.  In other words, the operator may not see workers due to the size and shape of his vehicle or plant.  

The H&S Agent needs to thus determine the number of vehicles on the roads, the type of vehicles to be used during construction and the type of construction. 

Use of Standards in determining PPE

There are standards that need to be taken into account when determining what level of PPE is to be used in road construction. 

The type of standard that is most commonly used for road construction signage is the South African (SA) Road Traffic Signs Manual (SARTSM) Volume 2 Chapter 13.  The emphasis is on advising what is appropriate for circumstances, and is flexible. 

The categories of work that require high visibility clothing is as follows:

  • Control of traffic (flagmen, traffic controllers)
  • Placement of signage and road marking, and
  • Where there is reduced visibility, relative to weather or lighting.

Various levels of clothing are required relative to the categories, which dictate the colours of clothing and the width of the retroreflective materials in use. 

Level 2 and 3 type clothing includes the speed at which traffic travels.  Figure 2 indicates the type of clothing, for level 3, and Figure 3 indicates the standards required.  All clothing is fluorescent, orange or yellow.


Figure 2.  Example of Level 3 overall (SARTSM, 1999).


Figure 3.  Detail regarding level 3 clothing required (SARTSM, 1999).

Other considerations

Other aspects that should be taken into account include hard hats.  There is much controversy regarding the wearing of hard hats in civil construction works as they protect heads from falling objects.  However, the SARTSM requires the wearing of red-orange, orange or yellow hard hats for such workers. 

The common aspect argued is that there is minimal overhead work and when working in and around roads.  Not so.  Working adjacent to, or around plant with high levels of blind spots should be considered as a risk factor.  

It goes without any real argument that safety shoes and/or gumboots would be required as well as any other PPE to protect the worker against noise, dust and other injuries. 

All of the above aspects that are determined would be written into the project specific H&S Specification for notifying the Contractors involved on a project.  Payment items should also be incorporated into the bill or schedules of quantities to cover costs. 


Figure 4.  This worker removed his safety boots to work in slip slops so his boots would last (Deacon, 2006).

Identification of PPE requirements during construction phase

It is the duty of the Contractors (as an employer) to ensure the H&S of their workers during the course of their work.  Often the details of how something is going to be built is not determined during the design phase of a project. 

Bearing the aforementioned in mind, it is therefore a requirement that the Contractor would submit information in his H&S plan to tell the Client how and what is going to be done.

 The information would include aspects of PPE needed and the critical management issues relating to issue, management, loss etc. 

The H&S Agent is required to monitor all of the works, and ensure that the PPE requirements stipulated, or standards required are met, for the duration of the project. 

Who should wear high visibility PPE on a site?

It stands to reason that anyone working in a construction zone as discussed should have the same standards applied. 

The professional team, including Client, visitors and other contractors and suppliers are all required to adhere to the standard on a project.  There may be lesser requirements for those spending short periods on site; however there should be minimum requirements for them too. 

Examples of PPE for short-term visitors (not undertaking work) could include hard hats, full reflective jackets and other items that protect against whatever other risk related factors have been identified.

General management of PPE in construction

Policies and procedures

The requirements relating to managing PPE on a construction site is also no different to that of general industry. 

Policies, procedures and general monitoring of the quality and condition of PPE is generally required.  Construction is a hard environment, and the purchasing of cheap equipment could result in being an expensive exercise in having to replace damaged or broken equipment. 

Purchasing should be according to the relevant code and standards for the various types of equipment discussed. 

Culture of workers need to be considered too.  Many rural women will not wear overalls, and alternative appropriate options need to be considered.

Hazard identification and risk assessments (HIRA)

HIRA are an integral part of any H&S management system.  PPE needs to be included where no other mitigation has been identified or is possible. 

A Contractor should be able to indicate that the PPE is the only option for a particular hazard, and indicate that the wearing of such would reduce risks significantly.

Management of PPE

Site supervisors should be responsible for checking their teams are properly attired for work pre start up. 

Visitors and suppliers should also be checked prior to entering a work area, and provided with PPE if need be.  Ideally no supplier or other Contractor should be allowed on site without the appropriate PPE. 

Replacement of damaged and lost equipment needs to be managed and issued, so spares are needed.  Workers need to be trained in the care and wearing of their PPE.  Training starts pre work, and whenever new PPE is required or a new worker commences work.

In conclusion

The attitude of many is that PPE is a necessary evil, and minimal attention is paid to the provision and management thereof.   I have noted that management often does not wear PPE, which could give workers the wrong messages, downplay the role of Health & Safety and increase project risk. 

The protection of workers in any environment is important.  However, the provision of PPE in the hierarchy of risk control is as the last resort. 

The more PPE is needed, the more dangerous the environment is, and the greater the systems needed to manage all its components.  

Great thought and understanding of the construction scope is required to determining what is appropriate during the planning stages of a project. 

Designing out risks is first prize, but the maintenance and management of the South African road network is here to stay.  Therefore working in the road is a very real, high risk for those Contractors doing the work.  

Similarly, determining whether all the aspects have been met and applied, are ongoing responsibilities of the H&S Agent and Contractors for the duration of the contract. 

The supply and management of PPE applies from the first to the very last day of a construction project.  Wearing of PPE is every ones responsibility, irrespective of level and status, from start to finish.