How to Select a Hard Hat to Fit Everyone's Comfort Zone
Recent research and design innovations coupled with advances in materials are paving the way for a new era of head protection.
- By Katie Twist-Rowlinson
- Mar 01, 2016
Hazards to workers' heads are widespread among industries as diverse as construction, manufacturing, oil and gas, mining, welding, forestry, and more. Among the most commonly used forms of personal protective equipment, hard hats are designed to protect the head from impact through an integrated combination of rigid shell material and an internal suspension. Too often, unfortunately, a poor-fitting or uncomfortable hard hat simply doesn't get used, putting workers at risk. This article reviews advances in hard hat technology that deliver a customized fit to help keep your workforce safe.
While the shell acts as a barrier to prevent penetration, its suspension dissipates energy upon impact to reduce the severity of the blow and the risk of injury. Though hard hats have been relied upon for decades, their basic materials and mechanisms have been slow to evolve. Recent research and design innovations coupled with advances in materials, however, are paving the way for a new era of head protection.
According to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), hard hats must be worn wherever the risk of electrical shock, burns, or impact or penetration from falling or flying objects exists. But despite safety standards and widespread hard hat adoption, head injuries are on the rise. The number of non-fatal occupational head injuries requiring at least one day away from work in 2014 totaled 84,750, up 4.7 percent from 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The costs of such an incident to affected individuals—whose injuries may range from bumps or concussions to permanent brain injury or death—as well as employers are significant. It is easy to agree that the importance of protecting workers’ most valuable asset, the head, is an undisputed priority.
According to OSHA, it is an employer's responsibility to provide head protection for its workers. But finding a hard hat to fit each individual comfortably—whether your workforce is comprised of five or 500—can prove challenging. Everyone has a unique build, from head circumference, height, and shape to ear and neck measurements and gender, and there are endless combinations of dimensions to consider. A hat that fits comfortably on one worker may cause significant discomfort for another.
Unfortunately, the discomforts of ill-fitting hard hats are familiar to most wearers. When a hard hat is poorly designed or constructed or is not properly sized or balanced, it is likely to feel bulky, wobbly, or top-heavy, causing pinch points, headaches, and neck and shoulder strain. To improve a wobbly hat’s retention, a worker is likely to overtighten its suspension, which leads to pinching and painful pressure. Likewise, working in an ill-fitting hat commonly leads to ergonomic strain as workers tense their muscles and avoid natural movement to help keep the hat in place, causing muscle strain.
To combat discomfort, a worker’s best defense may be removing the hat to make adjustments and alleviate pressure. But removing a hard hat on the job not only undermines productivity, it also leaves the individual vulnerable to serious, even potentially catastrophic, injury. Furthermore, a hat that does not stay in place is useless when the wearer needs it most: in the event of unexpected impact. Fortunately, new options are available to help employers select a single hard hat that fits every individual's comfort zone.
Selecting a hard hat that meets ANSI standard Z89.1-2014 for industrial head protection is the first step in ensuring safety. Type I hard hats are most commonly used in the United States and are designed to protect against impacts to the crown, or top, of the head. Type II hats provide both crown and lateral protection and are generally employed in higher-risk environments.
In addition to the impact protection they deliver, hard hats should be selected based on the appropriate level of electrical protection required. Class C (conductive) hard hats provide no electrical protection, while Class G (general) hats protect up to 2,200 volts and Class E (electrical) hats protect up to 20,000 volts. Beyond electrical protection, styles with a brim help shield the face from the elements, and those featuring additional back-of-head protection are best for slick, frozen, or otherwise slippery environments where fall hazards exist.
Fit Supports Safety
Once these basic requirements are met, the next most important attributes in selecting a hard hat are fit and comfort. When a hard hat fits properly, it sits securely and comfortably on the head. A secure fit ensures the hat will not move out of place upon impact, ensuring the shell and suspension alike are where they need to be to help deter penetration and dissipate energy. A secure fit also means reliable retention: No matter how a worker moves or bends, the hat stays on top of the head without falling forward, back, or to the side. Furthermore, when a hard hat fits comfortably, the wearer is able to conduct tasks without distractions from ergonomic distress (i.e., pressure points, pinching, headache, and neck and shoulder strain). Together, a fit that is both secure and comfortable supports protection and productivity.
Reduce Shell Weight and Volume
The hard hat's shell contributes to its overall weight and bulk. Older shells that are heavy or large are more likely to cause strain and more difficult to keep centered and balanced. If older hats prevail on your work site, start by considering a new, lighter-weight shell with a low-profile design for improved comfort and fit.
Adjustable Suspensions Personalize Fit
Next, take a close look at the suspension—this is where advances in fit and comfort can best be achieved. While suspensions commonly feature a single pin lock, ratchet, or tab lock adjustment in the rear, newer styles offer multiple adjustment points, allowing the wearer to fine-tune hat height as well as make front, lateral, and rear adjustments for a truly personalized fit. Look for easy-to-use sizing and adjustability features that allow individuals to quickly achieve a custom fit. In some instances, a single hard hat can be worn comfortably and effectively across a vast majority of size ranges with the proper adjustments.
Once proper fit and retention are achieved, a hard hat will stay in place upon impact and also throughout the course of routine tasks, including working out of position, bending to tie footwear, and even while running. In demanding workplaces where out-of-position work or moving equipment hazards are common, you may wish to consider hard hats with optional chin straps for the greatest level of retention.
Comfort Supports Compliance
Suspensions are constructed of a wide variety of materials. Rigid plastic suspensions are more likely to pinch or cause pressure points, leading to hat removal. Start by looking for suspension material that is soft, pliable, and easily conforms to the contours of the head. Likewise, the hat's sweatband can play a key role in wearer comfort and temperature regulation. As a worker’s body warms with exertion, the sweatband can trap heat as well as sweat, dirt, salt, grime, and debris. Choosing a sweatband material that is proven to absorb higher volumes of moisture and evaporate moisture faster creates a cooler feel for the worker, encouraging longer wear even in hot conditions. Opting for hypoallergenic sweatband material helps reduce dermatitis, while choosing a sweatband that can easily be removed, washed, and replaced, extends hard hat life and improves hygiene.
Consider Combination Wear
Because hard hats are often worn in conjunction with other forms of PPE, such as hearing protection and faceshields, they commonly feature standard-size accessory slots to accommodate combination wear. Beware, however, that when accessories are added to a hat with an ill-fitting suspension, their added weight can cause the hat to lose balance and can diminish its protective capabilities. Likewise, when selecting safety eyewear to be worn in conjunction with hard hats and other forms of PPE, look for low-profile or wraparound styles that minimize interference.
Make Room for Customization
Traditional styling is still preferred by a majority of hard hat wearers. But a hard hat must not only appeal to workers, it needs to meet employers' brand standards, as well. The bare or unmarked surface of the shell is prime real estate for custom logos, brand messaging, and more. If customization is important to the employer or the workforce, be sure to look for styles with ample room for lettering and design.
Try Before You Buy
Given the important role hard hats play in worker safety and the myriad new features to consider, selecting the next hard hat for your workforce may seem daunting. Before placing a large-scale order, consider asking a manufacturer for a trial or placing an order for a test committee first. By having workers try a hard hat and soliciting feedback, you can best determine whether the style meets the demands of your workplace and those who work there. Then, you can make an informed and confident purchasing decision.
With head injuries on the rise, there's no better time to consider the added safety of today’s hard hats. Innovations are helping make the selection process easier, with increasingly customizable solutions that ensure a safe, secure fit and all-day comfort to the widest variety of individuals yet. By outfitting workers with PPE that meets safety standards and delivers a personal fit, employers benefit from improved productivity, compliance and safety records—and the workforce benefits knowing that both their hard work and their well-being are valued.
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.