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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Orange means ‘caution’ and ‘safety’

“National Work Zone Awareness Week (NWZAW) is an annual spring campaign held at the start of construction season to encourage safe driving through highway work zones.” NWZAW is being held this week (April 11-15, 2022). Although the Federal Highway Administration and each of the state departments of transportation want drivers to use extra caution in work zones 24/7/365, NWZAW shines a spotlight on work zone safety. 

FreightWaves Classics will publish a new article on NWZAW each day this week. Here is a link to Monday’s article, and a link to yesterday’s article.


Today is “GO ORANGE” Day. Many will pay their respects today to victims and loved ones of those lost in work zone accidents over the years.

The color orange stands out among the other hues, tints and tones that the human eye can perceive. The right hues of orange are bright and unique. Therefore, orange is the key color used within construction work zones and for other safety purposes along roads and highways across the United States. 

A 2022 NWZAW poster uses orange effectively. (Image:
A 2022 NWZAW poster uses orange effectively. (Image:

State of Washington uses orange

The use of the color orange in road construction dates back to before World War II. The Washington State Department of Highways (now part of the Washington State Department of Transportation) began using orange more than eight decades ago. According to a 1937 article in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, the department began painting orange stripes on the centerlines of state highways “to keep drivers more focused and help them stay on their side of the road.” 

Explaining the innovative use of orange, the Spokesman-Review article noted how the color orange “has proven that it is much more visible under all conditions, including night driving” on roads and highways. “State highway trucks, signal posts and equipment generally are also painted orange for the same reason,” according to the article. “Orange, therefore, is the official color of the Washington state highway department.” The article also noted, “The orange stripe is a life-saver in many instances.” Regulations now prohibit orange-colored lines on pavement, but orange is the most prominent color used in and near road construction projects.

Two photos from the Washington State Department of Transportation. (Photos:
Two photos from the Washington State Department of Transportation. (Photos:

Orange goes national

By 1971 the “life-saving potential of orange” was recognized nationally in the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). IT introduced the use of the color orange (instead of the previously used yellow) in regulatory signs, barricades and other traffic-channeling devices in and near work zones. The 1978 edition of the MUTCD, which contained revisions to the 1971 edition, added other uses for orange in construction areas. The 1978 edition stated, “The high conspicuity of fluorescent orange colors provides an additional margin of safety by producing a high visual impact in hazardous areas.”     

On the color wheel, Safety Orange (or “Blaze” Orange) is the opposite of azure – often the color of the sky. That makes this hue of orange the “most dissimilar to an outdoor backdrop and the easiest to spot.” Safety orange/blaze orange is “recognized as a high-visibility color by the MUTCD, the American National Standards Institute and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA),” and the color is also used for hunting gear.

You can't miss the orange in this poster from the Evergreen Safety Council. (Photo:
You can’t miss the orange in this poster from the Evergreen Safety Council. (Photo:

High visibility is a must for the men and women working on America’s roads and highways. Today, safety orange is the color used for traffic cones, stanchions, barrels, signs and other construction zone marking devices. In addition, OSHA requires that certain construction equipment must be painted safety orange. Many workers will also wear orange safety vests (although some wear vests that are fluorescent green-yellow in color).

Simply put, drivers know that orange means “caution” or “watch out.” Orange sets objects apart from their surroundings, which means that drivers pay more attention to them.

Professional truck drivers are generally among the most safety-conscious drivers on the road. The vast majority of them realize that when they see “orange” they slow down and pay even more attention to what is taking place on and near the roadway.

A NWZAW poster from 2013. (Photo:
A NWZAW poster from 2013. (Photo: