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Staying Visible

New regulation will require some workers to wear safety vests


Kim Ring | | Thursday, November 20, 2008

MASSACHUSETTS -- Starting Monday, motorists may take more notice of workers on Massachusetts highways.

It won't be because there are more of them, but because they'll be donning high-visibility clothing as required by a new federal regulation that takes effect that day.

Federal regulation 23 CFR 634 was put in place to make highway workers and emergency personnel more visible to motorists, and some believe it will prevent accidents at construction sites, fires or other incidents on the highway.

Former New Braintree Fire Chief James A. Brown could serve as a poster child for the new regulations - though he's pretty sure he would have been hit no matter what he was wearing as he patched potholes at his job with the North Brookfield Highway Department in February.

"I had on an orange vest and he just didn't see me," Mr. Brown said. "He was the third car. The first two went by, and he hit me."

Mr. Brown hasn't been back to work since, and the recovery from five broken vertebrae and a broken arm, scapula and ribs, and a "hell of a dent" in his head is taking longer than he'd hoped.

Mr. Brown favors the new regulation, even though some towns are hard-pressed to find money in their budgets to outfit every police officer, firefighter, highway worker and anyone else who might find themselves working in the street.

"Anything that adds a measure of safety is good," he said. "And I do agree with the design."

The regulation requires the fluorescent and reflective vests to have a five-point break-away system so that if a passing car snags the garment, it tears off, rather than allowing the wearer to be dragged. Hit and knocked to the ground, Mr. Brown knows, as a firefighter, that being dragged could have made his injuries worse.

"And you certainly can see them better," said Spencer Fire Chief Robert Parsons. "I've been noticing and you can see the difference, especially when you have a guy wearing the old one and a guy wearing the new one."

But while most public safety personnel welcome the change, there is the not-so-small matter of funding. Up until a few months ago, it seemed the regulation wasn't well publicized and many towns were taken by surprise when, midway through the fiscal year, the expense popped up.

Townwide in Spencer, 128 vests, costing about $50 each, were needed, including the specialty vests used for major events when an incident command system is required.

"It certainly was an issue," the chief said of finding funding. "We've applied for a grant, but we haven't heard back yet. We have to have them, and we'll pay for them."

In an effort to take some of the burden off, the Massachusetts Call/Volunteer Firefighters' Association purchased 2,000 reflective traffic safety vests that will be distributed to about 170 fire departments that are association members.

Chief Parsons shopped around and found less expensive models, but they seemed flimsy, and he felt the added expense to upgrade them would ensure the vests wouldn't need replacing anytime soon.

In Worcester, District Fire Chief Michael O. McNamee, the department's health and safety officer, shopped around, too.

Because the city Fire Department runs differently from the Spencer call department, Worcester needed to buy a vest for each seat on all of the department's trucks, rather than for every member of the department. The 114 vests will cover all of the personnel on a shift and cost just under $10 each, he said.

While highway workers and police are accustomed to wearing the reflective gear at road jobs, firefighters are not. Some are resistant to adding another piece of gear to an already impressive amount of items they must don to fight a fire. The vests do not have to meet the same fire retardant standards as the gear firefighters normally wear, and while some models are heat resistant, they are also more expensive, Chief Parsons said.

Some firefighters are hesitant to wear the new vests, fearing they'll be cumbersome, but they're required and getting into the habit is important, West Barnstable Fire Chief Joseph V. Maruca said.

Chief Maruca is also a lawyer who has written about the regulations and pondered what might happen legally should a firefighter without his or her safety vest be killed by a car in the line of duty.

He said the regulation applies only to "federal-aid" roads, but so far he hasn't been able to get a clear definition of what that means. He said federal funds probably trickle down to many highways, so it's probably best to wear the vest whenever an incident occurs in or along the road.

Failing to do so could result in a fine and might cause a town's grant applications not to be funded. Worse still, should a firefighter die, there could be questions over whether the federal death benefit would be paid to the victim's surviving relatives, he said.

"I tend to think about what could come down the line," Chief Maruca said. "Why give them an excuse to fault you?"

The new law also affects service workers who install cable, phone and electric lines. Jacquelyn M. Barry, a spokeswoman for National Grid, said the company anticipated the change and has been in compliance with the new regulations for some time.

"We take safety very, very seriously," she said. "It's considered a core value."

For some, it will take a little getting used to, but eventually slipping on the vest will probably become second nature to most who must wear them.

In Worcester, fire officials are using a poem to train firefighters to use the vests, District Chief McNamee said: "If your feet are on the street, the vest is on your chest."

Contact Kim Ring by e-mail

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