Embellishing Safety Apparel

We have all seen the increased number of people wearing high-visibility clothing during the last year. As these garments became mandatory for anyone working within the right-of-way of a federal aid highway on November 24, 2008, we thought a brief overview of the requirements was in order. However, since they are lengthy and in the process of additional changes, we urge that you review specifications in more detail prior to entering this market.

The basic requirements

The most common requirement is ANSI/ISEA 107-2007. This specification has three main categories––Classes I, II and III––each of which mandates increasing levels of fluorescent material and retroreflective required on a safety garment. Class II garments are the most common, requiring a minimum of 775 square inches of fluorescent background and a minimum of 201 square inches of certified retroreflective trim. (See the table below.) Class II garments are usually T-shirts and vests, but can also be coats, jackets, coveralls and so forth.

In addition to meeting the requirements shown in the table, these garments must include a certification tag that specifies the standard and class of the garment to the wearer or safety manager. Any garment without such a tag is considered to be non-compliant.

While working at numerous apparel-industry tradeshows, we’re asked many questions regarding companies making their own high visibility clothing or adding embellishment to existing garments. We spend a large portion of our time educating and correcting some of the misconceptions that exist. To prevent you from making a costly mistake, I list below a few of the most frequently asked questions:

Can safety vests and T-shirts be personalized with a company logo?

One of the most important considerations to remember when personalizing a high-visibility garment is not to cover up too much background material. This can be the quickest way to turn a compliant garment into a non-compliant one. We’ve seen examples of a large logo or lettering being added to a safety vest that renders it technically worthless. Remember, the standard specifies the amount of visible florescent background material in addition to the reflective material required. Whenever embellishments are added, background material is covered up that the manufacturer counted for certification. This includes the addition of letters and logos cut from reflective material to a previously certified garment. 

Is there a rule of thumb as to how big a logo can be on a garment?

Unfortunately, there is not because of the variations of the amount of background material used from manufacturer to manufacturer. These variations are why it is so import to understand the standard itself. The standard uses the same material requirements for all sizes, which is why you will rarely see an ANSI/ISEA 107-2004 Class II T-shirt in sizes below adult medium. Smaller sizes often don’t have enough background to meet the standard. Therefore, additional consideration must be given to embellishing a size medium or large garment. These sizes do not have as much extra background compared to larger sizes, so it is important to keep the images small on these garments. Another option is to use outlined rather than solid letters so the background material is visible inside the letter, covering up less background than a solid letter.

To be safe, it is always a good idea to measure out the smallest garment to be personalized to confirm that plenty of background material is available. Add up the amount of visible fluorescent material and subtract the amount required for the standard. The result is the absolute maximum amount of area you can cover with embellishments.  

Why can’t I just add reflective stripes to a shirt I purchase from my supplier?

After reviewing the prices for ANSI/ISEA 107-2004 compliant garments it may be tempting to purchase an inexpensive T-shirt and apply reflective stripes to save money. In most cases this is just not feasible. Here’s a short list of items to consider:

A standard 100 percent cotton or 50/50 T-shirt will not meet the standard for colorfastness. To the best of my knowledge the only approved fabric that holds the fluorescents is polyester. Such may be marketed under a special name to reflect the comfort or moisture-wicking ability of the shirt, but the basic fiber is normally polyester.

Most manufacturers use a third party to certify that the garments meet all the requirements. This can be a costly procedure for companies manufacturing only a limited number of garments.

A tag will need to be permanently attached to the garment certifying what level of standard it meets.

Thus, we generally recommend an embellisher purchase a certified garment from a credible source, then add embellishments in a responsible manner.

Review the literature

This information is not intended to scare anyone away from dealing in safety apparel, but simply to educate on the importance of understanding the details. The high-visibility-garment market should see continued growth with some of the new proposals being discussed. Currently, these garments are mandatory within the right-of-way of federal roads. The draft of the 2009 Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devises (MUTCD) revision expands the requirements for these garments to within the right-of-way of almost all roads open to public travel.

If this revision becomes law, many of your current customers will be affected and may look to you for new garments. Customers who could be affected include landscapers, tree trimmers, paving and concrete contractors and the like. As there are too many details in the standards to cover in this brief article, we refer you to ANSI/ISEA publications, as well as an overview prepared by 3M, available in electronic format by emailing me at sdavis@safetyeffects.com.