For over 60 years, construction and the hard hat have gone hand in hand. But is it time to phase out the most well-known piece of personal protection equipment (PPE) in construction?
A new generation of head protection is arriving. Several construction companies are incorporating or switching to safety helmets for their workers in favor of the traditional hard hat. What’s the reason for the change? The answer is simple, and one we don’t hear often enough in construction – improving safety on the job.
“Personal protective equipment like hard hats, gloves and safety goggles are a key part of worker safety in construction, but they aren’t perfect,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “We should continue to explore ways to improve on this equipment to better protect the safety and health of LIUNA members and all workers.”
Limitations of the Hard Hat
We’ve covered in previous Lifelines articles how hard hats protect workers from dropped or flying objects. But as anyone who has spent time on a construction site knows, hazards come in all directions and include more than a stray tool or piece of material falling from above. Falling to the ground from a roof or being struck in the head by a steel beam being transported across a worksite are only a couple examples of when a hard hat may not help protect workers.
One major limitation of the current hard hat is that it’s prone to fall off a worker’s head if they slip, trip or fall. That’s because our head tends to snap back in these moments, leading to a fall without any head protection. Because hard hats use a suspension system instead of a chin strap, they can also fall off if a worker bends forward or looks up. The other safety issue with the current hard hat is that its design makes it poorly suited to deflect or absorb a blow to the side or back of the head. While the typical hard hat offers some protection in these areas, its primary purpose has always been stopping objects from above. Workers who are struck by objects in the side or back of the head risk concussions and more serious traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) that can affect both long-term physical health as well as mental health.
The construction industry has the greatest number of both fatal and nonfatal TBIs among U.S. workplaces. From 2003 to 2010, more than 2,200 construction workers died due to TBIs. These deaths represented 25 percent of all construction fatalities. It’s not difficult to imagine how many of these lives could have been saved – or the severity of the TBI reduced – if workers had improved head protection.
Potential Improvements of the Safety Helmet
The safety helmets being used today by construction contractors resemble helmets used in cycling, climbing and many other sports. They provide better coverage for the sides and back of the head than hard hats and use an interior foam lining for additional impact resistance. These helmets also feature an adjustable chin strap, and most go even further by providing ventilation and an optional integrated visor. These visors function as built-in safety goggles, meeting the OSHA requirement for eye protection and eliminating the need for an extra piece of PPE. These changes add up to much better overall head protection for workers.
Like hard hat manufacturers, companies producing safety helmets are offering these products in a variety of styles to meet the various hazards on construction sites. While a standard safety helmet would be categorized as Class C under ANSI’s Z.89.1 Industrial Head Protection standard, manufacturers also offer Class G and E helmets that provide additional protection against electrical hazards.
Hurdles That Could Slow Wider Adoption
If these safety helmets offer superior protection for workers, why aren’t more companies jumping to make the switch? The main deterrent is cost. A typical hard hat might cost $20, while these safety helmets currently cost between $80-150 or more depending on the model and optional features. Like any new product, limited demand leads to limited production and higher cost. Despite this, several U.S. construction companies have committed to switching to safety helmets or started rolling them out as part of pilot programs. Others are working with manufacturers to get volume discounts and make these helmets more affordable and widely available. Another positive related to cost is that the shelf life of a hard hat is typically about five years, while safety helmets are built to last twice as long.
A second potential issue is that some helmets may feel heavier than a normal hard hat due to the added impact resistance. This different feel and style may make them unpopular with some workers, while others may welcome a style of head protection they are familiar with from other hobbies and sports activities.
The result may be that contractors start by providing workers with safety helmets only for certain hazardous tasks, such as when workers are at heights. We may still be a few years away from seeing safety helmets becoming the standard on construction sites, but it’s a change that’s likely coming.