The History of High-Vis Clothing

High-visibility clothing came to prominence in the last century, undergoing rapid experimentation during World War II. It went on to be adopted by road and railway workers, and expanded to all different types of fields: security guards, parking attendants, crossing guards – and today, of course, it’s seen on cyclists, joggers, and hunters. It has an interesting history, and its efficacy raises the question: How did we go so long without it?


High-visibility fabric paint was invented by an American named Bob Switzer, who in the 1930s was injured in an workplace accident. During his recovery, he invented a neon-colored paint by mixing fluorescent minerals with wood varnish. He tested out his new paint, which he called Day-Glo, on his wife’s wedding dress, and it took off from there. It wasn’t long before he and his brother were manufacturing it on a huge scale, making inroads into the toy sector and beyond.

Even the military took notice. In World War II, fluorescent panels were used to send signals from the ground up to planes; crews on aircraft carriers wore fluorescent fabric to demarcate where planes should land; and buoys were painted with it to denote which areas had been cleared of mines.

The History of High-Vis Clothing

Over the next few decades, it became a central part of work wear in the U.S. and abroad, with laws mandating its use. For example, in the U.K., high-visibility clothing was first adopted by rail workers in the 1960s. Then, the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, and the Personal Protective Equipment Act of 1992 guaranteed it would become a permanent feature of work uniforms for maintenance workers in the U.K.

Protecting Today’s Workers in the U.S.

Through the American National Standards Institute, in 1999 the United States issued a set of standards to determine which workers have to wear high-visibility clothing, and how much.

  • Class 1 – In situations where there’s a low risk of hazards due to slow-moving vehicles – in a parking lot, for example – workers have to wear a high visibility safety vest with reflective strips that are 1 inch wide, and which has a minimum of 217 square inches of high-visibility material.
  • Class 2 – Employees where vehicles are moving up to 25 miles per hour, such as railway workers or crossing guards, must wear garments with wider reflective bands, and the garment should have over 755 square inches of high-visibility fabric.
  • Class 3 – Activities where vehicles are moving faster, such as highway maintenance, require 1,240 square inches of hi-visibility fabric and two-inch reflective bands. The increased amount of reflective fabric required usually means that the garment can’t simply be a vest, and it would probably include sleeves as well.

Addendums to these standards were passed in 2006 and further clarified things such as which color vests pertain to different kinds of workers. Fire fighters must wear red vests, and police must wear blue, for example. In 2007, the standards were further modified to allow for shorter-length garments, tear-away functionality, and radio and badge holders. Other countries such as the U.K. have similar laws.


Other Uses Today

Today, high-visibility clothing is not just for maintenance workers. Motorcyclists and bicyclists have adopted it as well, and it has been shown to provide a dramatic reduction in collisions – reducing accidents with motorcyclists by nearly one-third, and increasing the visibility and the distance that drivers maintain from bicyclists.

Additionally, some states might require hunters to wear “blaze orange” garments to differentiate them from game animals. Sometimes orange camouflage is used, as it is visible to humans, but not to certain animals who can’t see the color, and for whom the camouflage breaks up and obscures the human form.

If you’re in need of high visibility safety vests that are compliant with the U.S. standards, visit our catalog of products, and check out our other resources available for learning more about safety in the workplace.