Prioritizing Safety from the Top Down

The world of worker safety is redefining head protection as it makes the shift from traditional hard hats to comprehensive safety helmets in construction.

To prioritize the safety of employers and employees, it is crucial to reevaluate the current head protection available to industrial workers.

Traditionally, construction tradespeople and industrial workers have relied on conventional hard hats. While these hard hats primarily offer protection against falling objects, they fall short in terms of safeguarding workers against other potential head injuries resulting from falls, slips, and trips. Therefore, they require more comprehensive head protection than what traditional hard hats can provide. 

Construction sites inherently pose risks. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2020, construction laborers had a higher incidence rate of nonfatal falls, slips, or trips (52.5 cases per 10,000 full-time workers) compared to the average for all workers (22.9 cases). This disparity comes as no surprise, given the multitude of hazards present at construction sites, ranging from falling objects to electrical and chemical exposures. 

The Helmet Overhaul 

Falls rank as the third leading cause of fatal incidents in the construction industry. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), there were 1,008 documented fatal falls in the United States construction industry in 2020, accounting for approximately 35 percent of all construction-related accidents. Considering that more than half of the construction workforce operates on scaffolds, significantly increasing the risk of falls from heights and associated traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), this is no surprise. 

In reaction, the industry is shifting its approach to head protection. For more than a century, the industry has relied on the traditional hard hat, which today must comply with the American National Standard for Industrial Head Protection (ANSI) Z89.1 Type I standard. However, when it comes to impact protection, Type I hard hats are designed only to reduce the force of impact from the top of the head—typically from falling objects.

Now, various industrial-related industry decision makers, from plant operators to construction safety officers and other professionals, are moving toward the new ANSI Z89.1 Type II Safety Helmet as part of their personal protective equipment (PPE) arsenal.

In comparison, ANSI-certified Type II safety helmets provide comprehensive 360-degree head protection. They incorporate advanced shock-absorbing technologies and offer front, side, and rear impact protection. Additionally, they often feature chin straps and other innovations that ensure the helmet stays on the head, safe and secure, in the event of accidents.

While Type II safety helmets may require a higher initial investment compared to traditional hard hats, they provide significantly enhanced safety and overall comfort for workers. They are specifically designed to improve wearability and, most importantly, offer superior protection against severe injuries or fatalities. 

Moving the Safety Needle 

By addressing some of the leading causes of injuries and fatalities in construction, such as falls, trips, and slips, organizations can better protect their workforce. Following OSHA’s recommendations, including its recent “Fall Protection Campaign,” investing in safer PPE, such as Type II safety helmets represent a crucial step toward achieving this goal. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most head injuries resulting from slips, trips, or falls occur at heights of 6 feet or less. This is a primary reason why many commercial general contractors now require Type II safety helmets with chin straps, alongside other certifications and requirements, to ensure compliance on high-profile job sites. 

Compared to traditional hard hats, Type II safety helmets offer superior physical and material advantages. The adoption of Type II safety helmets leads to a reduction in injuries, resulting in fewer worker compensation claims and potentially lower liability insurance costs. It contributes to an overall risk reduction within the workplace while fostering a stronger safety culture and creating an environment of care and concern for a worker’s well-being. 

Furthermore, improved safety measures can enhance productivity, allowing workers to spend more time on the job site and less time recovering from injuries, ultimately benefiting their earnings potential and overall lifestyle. 

Additional safety features of Type II-rated helmets: 

  1. Full Brims and Modular Rear Brims: Helmets may feature a slight rear brim to deflect rain or they can maintain the traditional full-brim form factor, providing even more protection against outdoor conditions. Depending on the job site and conditions, certain Type II helmets allow wearers to remove and replace brim components, further improving comfort and utility. Full brim options and especially useful to those working outdoors – offering sun and rain protection while maintaining the traditional hard-hat look. 
  1. Impact Protection: Type II helmets are also more likely to feature advanced impact protection technologies throughout the helmet, such as Koroyd‘s welded-tube polymers, which instantly crumple upon impact, absorbing maximum force and safeguarding the skull and brain from both direct and angled impacts. By reducing the impact of oblique and angled impacts, which are more likely to cause rotational shifts of the brain within the skull, Type II helmets can mitigate the risk of life-changing or life-threatening injuries. 
  1. Identification Technology: Some helmets incorporate integrated chips based on near-field communication (NFC) technology, storing critical emergency contacts and medical information for quick access by first responders. For example, twICEme utilizes NFC to enable first responders to scan the data stored on the helmet through a mobile device. Traditional hard hats often require workers to affix vital health information on a piece of paper inside the helmet, which can be problematic for medical professionals who may not be able to remove the helmet to avoid further injury during the initial assessment.
  1. Four-Point Chin Strap Systems: Safety helmets equipped with buckle enclosures and adjustable nylon four-point chin straps, commonly found in action sports helmets like those used for biking and rock climbing, offer construction workers maximum adjustability and easy one-handed use, even while wearing gloves. The chin straps also ensure that the helmet remains securely in place in the event of a fall, unlike traditional strapless hard hats. 

A Sound Investment

In conclusion, the construction industry thrives due to the hard work and skills of individuals who dedicate themselves to each project. While physical strength is essential in construction work, the most valuable asset remains the workers’ brains — their most complex and vital tool. Organizations and workers alike recognize the need to protect this invaluable asset to ensure the success of the project, to preserve livelihoods, and to help workers support their respective families. 

As forward-thinking organizations voluntarily transition to Type II safety helmets as the new standard, they can be assured that the investment is justified not only from a financial perspective but also in terms of establishing a culture that prioritizes safety above all else. After all, if an organization is willing to make the investment in an expensive pair of steel-toed boots, there should be no question about head protection. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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