Hard hats are among the most commonly worn types of PPE, yet U.S. workers continue to face an unacceptable number of head injuries. (Honeywell Safety Products photo)

Top Considerations for Providing Effective Head Protection

Although hard hats are among the most commonly worn types of PPE, U.S. workers continue to face an unacceptable number of head injuries.

Each year, workers experience roughly 80,000 nonfatal head injuries that involve days away from work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Leading causes of occupational head injuries include being struck by or making contact with objects or equipment, as well as slips and falls. Hazards to the head exist in nearly every industry, from forestry, mining, and construction to manufacturing, utilities, oil and gas, and more.

The extent of occupational head injuries ranges from bumps and concussions to catastrophic impact and even death, and the cost can be devastating to the individual and the employer alike. In fact, injuries involving the head or central nervous system are the most costly lost-time worker's compensation claims. Such injuries averaged more than $84,000 per worker's compensation claim filed in 2007 and 2008, according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance.

To help prevent head injuries, national and corporate standards for head protection are in place that call for hard hats to be worn wherever top-of-head hazards exist. Yet while hard hats are among the most commonly worn types of personal protective equipment, our nation's workers continue to face an unacceptable number of head injuries. This article looks at top considerations for outfitting workers with hard hats that deliver effective head protection and all-day comfort to support compliance and reduce injuries on the job.

Impact and Electrical Protection
In the United States, hard hats must meet the American National Standards Institute Z89.1-2009 standard for industrial head protection, and they are classified into two categories. Type I caps provide impact protection to the crown, or top, of the head only. Type II caps protect from both crown and lateral impact (front, back, sides and top) and are also tested for off-center penetration resistance and chin strap retention. Adoption of Type II caps is on the rise as employers recognize the added protection and lifesaving benefits they provide.

ANSI also classifies protective caps based on their level of electrical insulation. Class G (general) helmets are tested to withstand 2,200 volts, Class E (electrical) caps are tested to 20,000 volts, and Class C (conductive) caps provide no electrical protection. A cap's electrical rating is molded into the underside of its brim for easy identification. When selecting a hard hat, be sure it is ANSI-approved, provides the proper level of impact resistance, and meets the appropriate electrical rating for corresponding hazards.

Suspension
In general, workers understand the dangers of removing hard hats in the presence of hazards and are likely to keep caps on where they should. However, factors such as fit and comfort play key roles in noncompliance. A hard hat’s suspension is the internal framework that helps absorb and distribute energy upon impact. It is also a hard hat’s primary means of ensuring a safe and comfortable fit.

The less comfortable a hard hat's suspension is, the more likely a worker is to remove the cap to make adjustments or to alleviate discomfort. A poorly designed suspension may require the wearer to over-tighten it to achieve a snug fit, which can lead to headaches, pinch points, and sore spots. Similarly, if the suspension is constructed of plastic or a similarly rigid material, it is less likely to conform to an individual’s head, causing discomfort and distraction. Finally, if the suspension does not offer effective lateral adjustments, the wearer may experience an unbalanced, top-heavy fit. This can result in neck pain as well as poor retention, meaning the cap is more likely to fall off when bending over or adding the weight of a faceshield.

When worn properly, a hard hat should provide a snug, balanced, and secure fit around the head. To identify a hard hat that will provide lasting comfort and a safe fit, start by considering the number of suspension points. Hard hats generally come with 4-, 6-, or 8-point suspensions, and that number represents how many connections exist between the suspension and cap. Each connection helps disperse the weight of the hat during everyday wear, as well as the force of impact upon being struck. Therefore, a higher number of suspension points means greater all-day comfort and a safer outcome in the event that impact does occur.

Next, look for easy-to-use sizing and adjustability features that allow workers to quickly achieve a customized fit. Suspension circumference is commonly adjusted by pin locks, ratchets, or tab locks, and other options such as sliding bands make resizing a cap especially quick and easy. Height adjustments, which generally need to be made only once, are important in achieving low-to-the-head, secure retention, while swing suspensions are valuable for individuals who frequently wear caps backward. Suspensions are available in many materials; look for those made of durable yet pliable material, such as nylon, which conforms to the head for a comfortable, customized fit.

Finally, be aware that heat and sweat can deter comfort and undermine compliance. The hotter a worker becomes as a result of exertion or the environment, the more likely he is to remove his cap to cool off or wipe sweat from his brow. To reduce the risk of removal as well as heat stroke and dehydration, look for cooling options. Highly absorbent washable or replaceable sweatbands are good options to consider, as are cooling headbands, neck wraps, and attachable sunshields that guard the neck, face, and ears from direct sun.

Combination Use
Hard hats are frequently worn in conjunction with other forms of PPE and often serve as the foundation of an overall eye and face protection system. Therefore, it is important to select a cap that can be worn safely and comfortably during combination use. For instance, in applications where safety eyewear is required, make sure the selected styles do not interfere. When a hard hat’s suspension bumps into the temples of the eyewear, discomfort, distraction, or optical distortion may result.

Similarly, consider possible interactions between the cap and faceshields or welding helmets. Face protection used in combination with a hard hat relies on some form of mounting system. Considerations for selecting a mounting system include frequency of combination protection, durability, ease of use, and compatibility with different products. For high frequency transitions in face protection, look for attachment systems that are fully adjustable to fit any style of cap and have a brim tab design that fits securely onto the cap. For long-term secure situations, pre-installed or permanently fixed options offer ease of use.

In electrified environments, be sure the mounting system does not alter the cap's dielectric rating. Hinges, snaps, or other attachments used for secondary protection also must be non-conductive to maintain the cap’s dielectric rating and prevent a shock hazard.

Reverse Donning
Like combination use, reverse donning is commonplace. Wearing a safety cap backwards can offer added upward visibility or extra comfort when using the cap with faceshields or welding helmets. However, it is important to note that not all caps are intended for reverse wear, and those that are not may put an individual at significant risk when worn backwards.

To address the popularity of reverse donning and the related safety liability it can pose, ANSI updated its 2009 standard to include an optional reverse donning test for caps. Hard hats meeting the standard for reverse wear are now marked with a reverse symbol, depicted by two arrows adjoined in a circle. If reverse wear is a factor at your work site, be sure caps meet this revised standard.

To reverse a hard hat, many models require the wearer to remove the suspension, reverse it, and reinstall it. This process can take several minutes to perform and, to do so safely, should be conducted outside the hazard area. Such transitions can cost valuable time and put the wearer at risk if the suspension is not reinstalled properly. To avoid possible disruption or human error, look for hard hats with suspensions that are easy to reverse. Those with swing hinge headgear take only seconds to reverse without removing the suspension from the cap, thus improving compliance, safety, and productivity.

Many factors contribute to keeping workers' most valuable assets--their heads--safe, and providing effective head protection should be a top priority in every organization. By understanding the various types of hard hats available, as well as the latest fit and comfort options, safety managers can make informed decisions that allow workers to perform their jobs safely. A comfortably protected workforce is a productive one, and complying with head protection directly supports a company's overall culture of safety.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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