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Why are excavators yellow?

A yellow excavator digs a hole on a job site
Even as children, many of us played with yellow toy excavators. Pixabay

Most manufacturers colour their construction equipment yellow. Over three-quarters of all excavators worldwide utilize this colour. But why? The reasons range from safety concerns to historical developments, all the way to deeply ingrained cultural and psychological associations.

Imagine you have a pack of crayons, and someone asks you to draw an excavator. What colour would it be? Most likely, it would be yellow. Even as children, many of us played with yellow toy excavators. And at the construction site at the end of our street, we often see yellow machines. But why does this colour so strongly dominate the world of construction equipment? Here are the reasons.

Safety through visibility

A construction site poses inherent risks, and unfortunately, accidents there are all too common. Yellow is one of the most visible colours. Both during the day and at night, the colour provides sufficient contrast – even under the dusty conditions on a construction site. As such, it serves excellently as a warning colour that signifies hazards. Both workers and bystanders are more likely to recognize the machinery on the site, helping to avoid accidents.

Who started it?

Caterpillar was the pioneer in adopting yellow as the colour for construction machinery. In the early 20th century, their equipment was grey, influenced by military usage. However, it was recognized that for increased safety on roads and at construction sites, these vehicles needed to sport a high-visibility colour. Thus, in 1931, the company opted for a yellow hue. An unintended consequence was branding: The yellow machines drew attention, stood out, and helped people remember the manufacturer. So, it was not long before other companies followed suit.

Caterpillar used their Hi-Way Yellow until 1979. Since then, their construction machines have been driving around in a more subdued, yet visually appealing Caterpillar Yellow. And of course, this colour is legally protected as a trademark. Since 1989, the colours black and Caterpillar Yellow have also been integrated into the modern Cat logo.

Culture and psychology

For decades, yellow has been the standard colour for construction machinery, and people often associate the colour with the construction industry. This is why there are also cultural reasons for painting excavators yellow. Even children are conditioned to this colour scheme. Or have you ever seen a non-yellow toy excavator?

Additionally, psychology plays a trick on us so that we hardly notice non-yellow excavators. The psychological phenomenon responsible for this is called "selective perception," in which we only notice certain aspects of our environment while ignoring others. This is a result of our cognitive capacity limits, as we simply cannot process all information simultaneously. This can be further reinforced by our past experiences and psychological effects such as confirmation bias or self-fulfilling prophecies. Humans tend to perceive things in a way that confirms their existing beliefs, while at the same time ignoring contradictory information. This combination of cultural influences, early childhood experiences, and our psychological wiring makes us firmly believe that an excavator must be yellow.

More than three-quarters of all excavators are yellow.

The colour of the construction machine depends mainly on the manufacturer. For the sake of selective perception, we will ignore the fact that some construction companies have their machines specially made in the corporate design of their company.

If we focus solely on the manufacturers of excavators and filter the Yellow Table by companies making mini and midi excavators up to 13 tons as well as large excavators over 13 tons, then 28 out of the 50 companies fall into this category. If we combine the individual market shares with the corporate colour of the construction machinery company, it turns out that

More than three-quarters of all excavators sold in 2022 were yellow. By combining the corporate colour with the market share of the top 50 construction equipment manufacturers, exactly 76.2 percent of excavators are yellow. The second most common colour by a wide margin was orange or red (11.9 percent), followed by white or grey (6.2 percent), and then green or blue tones (5.8 percent). These trends are also reflected in the used machinery market. At Surplex, in the year 2022, 71 percent of the sold used excavators were also yellow.

So, it is both myth and reality. Not all excavators are yellow, but the majority are and for good reasons. This ensures safety on construction sites, and from a young age and for generations, we have been conditioned to associate yellow with excavators.

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