Beyond the Brim: The Future of Industrial Helmet Design

As production processes evolve, one day it may become cost-effective to produce a single, one-off custom hard hat.

WEARERS of hard hats will look and feel better as helmet manufacturers continue to develop products that improve comfort and ease of use. These innovations promise to lift the next generation of hard hats to higher levels of acceptance. New designs are lighter, cooler, and offer better performance in a variety of applications. Add sharp new styling to those benefits, and tomorrow's hard hat will help wearers "be cool" and look cool!

Heat Rises
Advances in molding technology allow manufacturers to build comfort into hard hats by strategically placing ventilation slots in the crowns of certain models. With conventional helmets, body heat can be trapped just above a worker's head. In cold weather, this layer of warm air may provide additional comfort. But during the summer months or when working indoors, it can cause excessive sweating and discomfort, even to the point that a worker may opt to remove his/her protective helmet for a cooler, unprotected head.

Heat rises, so why not "go with the flow" of this basic physics principle? The latest innovation in helmet design incorporates molded-in vents that allow body-heated air to escape through the top of the hard hat. And, as air exits through the top, cooler air is drawn into the inside helmet area from the bottom. In some cases, this passive ventilation increases air circulation inside the shell by as much as 80 percent. Sticklers for impact protection may be relieved to know the inclusion of ventilation slots does not compromise the helmet's impact attenuation properties.

All hard hats and caps, vented and non-vented, are tested alike and must meet or exceed the ANSI (American National Standards Institute; see the sidebar below) Z89.1-2003 Standard's performance requirements. Be sure to look for the ANSI Z89.1-2003 label before buying or using any protective helmet.

Barring the development of new, stronger, and lighter plastics, it's not likely tomorrow's protective helmet materials will differ much from the types of plastics that are available and in use today. But you can look for helmet manufacturers to continue to improve their designs.

New Looks
Hard hat wearers are no longer limited to cookie-cutter looks. In fact, helmet design and appearance are trending toward customization, much as many other safety products are.

New, better high-visibility colors give helmets a brighter look and better visibility than their predecessors, thanks to improvements in technology. Certainly, more colors than ever are readily available. Also, instead of the plain, unadorned helmet, many manufacturers offer custom, user-defined reflective striping options, which give helmets more personality or distinction. But the greatest advances are in the area of custom graphics.

It used to be you could tell the electricians from the pipefitters at a construction site by the color of their hard hats. Workers for one contractor wore blue hard hats; workers for another wore green. The days of color-coded work sites are numbered as trades-people choose individualized designs to suit the kind of work they do and the hazards they may face. They also can choose from an endless array of helmets displaying shell graphics to commemorate their involvement in an historic event or proudly wear their patriotic feelings on their hard hats. Sports fans can show support for their favorite NFL franchise, university, or NASCAR driver while wearing state-of-the-art head protection.

Creative Customization
More than ever, hard hats are being used as platforms for imagery that is limited only by the imaginations of helmet and graphic designers. Manufacturers are making it easy for anyone to design a unique hard hat, much as extremely customized T-shirt designs are possible.

Starting with a basic white helmet, virtually anyone with a camera or scanner can create his or her own design. Even with digital-imaging technology doing most of the work, though, set-up costs can be considerable, especially for short runs. As production processes evolve, perhaps it may one day become cost-effective to produce a single, one-off custom hard hat.

Most methods of applying logos and photographs involve full-color processes such as pad or transfer screening. During these processes, the original graphic is separated into its component colors. It is then applied to the helmet, one color at a time. By combining the inks properly, manufacturers can reproduce virtually any color.

For large runs and intricate designs, a new vacuum-forming technology can produce stunning results. With vacuum forming, the graphic is printed onto a thin film, which is then vacuum-adhered to a helmet shell. This technique opens up a world of possibilities. With conventional helmet-printing methods, the size and shape of designs are limited. They can be applied only to the relatively flat parts of the helmet on the front, back, and sides. With vacuum forming, graphics easily bend around angles and follow contours. The entire outer surface of the helmet becomes a canvas. Freed from limitations, the resulting designs can be contemporary, eye-catching, and, for the worker, a joy to wear.

Whether perceived as a fashion statement, an expression of loyalty, or just an attention-attracting decoration, striking graphics are not just cosmetic. In fact, they give safety managers another tool to use when looking for ways to increase workers' acceptance of wearing hard hats.

Understanding Z89.1-2003

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) released Z89.1-2003, American National Standard for Head Protection, in July 2003. For those familiar with the 1997 version of this standard, the new standard will appear very similar. The new standard recognizes advances in material and technology. Physical requirements that did not add value or "limited design or performance" were removed, shifting the emphasis of Z89.1-2003 to performance.

For example, the 1995 version had 13 entries covering helmet components and construction. The 2003 version has one: "Accessories installed by the manufacturer shall not cause the helmet to fail the requirements of this standard."

The 1997 standard divided the industrial helmet world into two types: Type I helmets are intended to reduce the force of an impact to the top of a wearer's head; Type II helmets are designed to protect from blows received off-center or to the top of a wearer's head. The new standard's performance requirements for Type I and Type II Helmets are equivalent to those of the 1997 revision. The electrical performance requirements in the new 2003 standard are identical to those in the 1997 standard.

Perhaps the most significant changes in the new standard have to do with hat sizes. The new standard requires four new sizes: 8 and 1/8, 8 and 1/4, 8 and 3/8, and 8 and 1/2.

Components Count
But the bottom line is still comfort. To see what's on the horizon to improve comfort and wearability, we have to turn the helmet over and look inside it.

ANSI defines hard hats as having two essential parts: a shell and a suspension. The suspension holds the helmet in place on the wearer's head and helps absorb the shock of an impact. It's the part of the helmet that comes into contact with the wearer's head, so if there's going to be discomfort, it's probably going to be caused by the suspension.

Manufacturers have responded by creating a variety of suspension types to suit individual needs. Four-, six-, and even eight-point suspension systems are now available to give wearers options on how the helmet's weight is distributed on their heads. Manufacturers will continue to introduce comfort pads to reduce pressure points. They're also exploring new sweatband materials that offer better absorption (presumably for those who haven't chosen vented helmets). Also, look for easier-to-use, custom-fitting devices with slimmer profiles, more adjustability, and one-handed operation to make your hat fit your head more closely.

Cautions Don't Change
Advances in helmet technology and design undoubtedly will result in helmets that protect even better and are more readily accepted by wearers. If today's helmet manufacturers have their way, wearers of tomorrow's hard hats won't give it a second thought. They'll put it on and quickly forget they're wearing it, so the following reminders will be as pertinent 10 years from now as they are today:

  • Learn to spot risks and avoid them.
  • It only takes a few minutes to learn and do, so inspect your helmet every time you use it.
  • Paint, solvents, and hydrocarbons such as gasoline and kerosene can damage your helmet in ways you may not be able to see.
  • Unless the manufacturer approves, don't alter or modify your helmet.
  • Discard the helmet after any impact or penetration.
  • Don't store things between the shell and the suspension. Your helmet needs this space to protect the best safety device you have: your head. Don't fill it up with junk.

This article originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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