The Protection Misconception Surrounding Climbing Helmets

According to a report from the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, construction workers have the highest rate of brain injuries among U.S. workers—both fatal and non-fatal.

According to a report from the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, construction workers have the highest rate of brain injuries among U.S. workers—both fatal and non-fatal. Traumatic brain injuries represented 25 percent of all construction fatalities and 24 percent of all occupational traumatic brain injury fatalities. The report cited the leading causes of traumatic brain injuries for construction workers to be falls from roofs, ladders and scaffolds.1

With studies reporting such staggering statistics as these, it’s no surprise that head protection has become a popular topic in discussions surrounding construction worker safety. It also may explain why more and more construction companies have been exploring the use of climbing helmets, rather than traditional hard hats, when assessing their head protection needs. This trend can be attributed to the belief that all climbing helmets provide the same, enhanced level of head protection by protecting workers from both top-of-head and side impact.

This misconception assumes that climbing helmets possessing a foam liner, a common feature among climbing helmets, will protect to the equivalent of a Type II style, which is not true. The foam liner is not what escalates a climbing helmet from providing Type I to Type II protection. Specific testing is required in order to receive Type II status, which is what renders the helmet effective in protecting against side impact. The first step in unveiling any protection misconceptions is understanding the difference between Type I and Type II hard hats.

The Difference Between Type I and Type II Protection
The main difference between Type I and Type II hard hats is the type of impact that they protect against:

  • Type I hats are designed to reduce the force of impact located at the top of the head only.
  • Type II hard hats are designed to reduce the force of impact both at the top and the sides of the head.
    This element is straightforward. However, an additional component that distinguishes Type I helmets from Type II helmets that we previously alluded to is that Type II styles are subjected to more testing than Type I styles are. Both Type I and Type II hats are subject to penetration testing, but:
  • Type I styles are only tested at a single position, compared to Type II hats, which are also subjected to an off-center penetration test.
  • Type II hard hats must also go through an Impact Energy Attenuation test.

The Impact Energy Attenuation test is different than the force impact test because this test has the protector falling to strike an object, instead of force impact tests, which has an object striking the protector. This is intended to represent a real-world situation where a worker may strike an object during a slip or fall. This scenario aligns with what the report referenced at the beginning of this article attributed most traumatic brain injuries to—construction workers falling or slipping from roofs, ladders and scaffolds.

There’s one final difference in the testing that Type II styles are subject to in comparison to Type I hats— this one relates to the chin strap. If a Type II hat is provided with a chin strap, there’s an additional testing procedure for the retention and elongation of the chin strap. On Type I hats, there is no chin strap retention test that’s required to meet the ANSI Z89.1 standard.

The Role Work Environment Plays
When identifying which climbing helmet fits your needs—a Type I or Type II style—evaluating your work environment and assessing the hazards is critical. Your work environment plays a crucial role because you may not require the additional protection that comes with a Type II style.

Do the conditions or situations present a concern for enduring impact on the sides of the head? Is there a risk of one’s head striking an object, instead of just an object striking the hat only at the top of the shell? Due to the varying hazards when working at height, a climbing style helmet may be the best fit for you if it is tested to ANSI Z89.1 Type II standards. That is the only way to guarantee you are receiving an increased level of protection from falls or slips.

In the United States, OSHA has only adopted the ANSI Z89.1 standard for head protection.  Compliance enforcement and judgment of if the level of protection is adequate is only based on compliance with ANSI Z89.1, not any other standard in any other market worldwide.

In summary, it is important to recognize the differences between the testing requirements of Type I and Type II hard hats. Additional features, such as a foam liner or chin strap, do not make a Type I hard hat offer equivalent protection to a Type II. Assessment of the potential workplace hazards is also crucial to determining which protector will provide the best protection for the work environment.

1 Tiesman H, Konda S, Reichard A (2016). Fatal traumatic brain injuries in the construction industry: 2003−2010. Am. J. Ind. Med. 59:212–220.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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