The Rising Popularity of Safety Helmets on the Jobsite
OSHA requires that head protection must be worn whenever working in an area with potential injury to the head from falling objects.
- By Zachary Richman
- Sep 01, 2021
Hard hats have come a long way since shipbuilders would cover their hats with tar to create a layer of protection from tools and objects falling from ships. Today, the hard hat has become an iconic symbol to represent the construction industry. Hard hats are typically made of polyethylene and additional accessories such as shields, visors, hearing protection and lights can be attached. OSHA requires that head protection must be worn whenever working in an area with potential injury to the head from falling objects. Signs reading, “Hard Hat Required,” welcome each worker to the site, where every individual is wearing one, regardless of their trade or the task they are doing.
And while hard hats have typically been the longstanding go-to choice for protection against permanent, life-changing injuries or death, more and more, they are being replaced by safety helmets. These helmets, derived from the ones used in extreme sports such as rock climbing or even whitewater rafting, attach more closely on the head and have built-in chin straps. This ‘helmet revolution’ has some safety managers looking beyond the typical hard hat when choosing the best protective headgear to fit their crews’ needs while keeping them safe on the job.
The Importance of Head Protection
Advancements in PPE can be invaluable for workers, their employers and insurance companies. With no shortage of ways to get injured on a jobsite, head protection is essential to defend against falling objects such as tools and debris, fixed objects such as pipes or electrical hazards, and trips, slips or falls.
Yet, despite it being a well-known fact that head protection is crucial to workplace safety, head injuries continue to be one of the most frequent injuries on the job. The most common head injuries include concussions, head contusions, brain hemorrhage, hematoma and skull fractures. Remote Medical International (RMI) states most head injuries within the construction and manufacturing industry are caused by slips and falls. According to OSHA, in 2016, 38 percent of all fatalities in the workplace were caused by falls, making it the leading cause of fatalities in the workplace.
With proper head protection, these common yet serious injuries could likely be prevented, ultimately saving lives in the event of a worker slipping or falling. Companies could prevent hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost time and compensation payouts to the injured worker and insurance companies could see less claims and overall lower risk.
Similar to other PPE, head protection that is approved by OSHA meets the minimum criteria established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA). Head protection classification is referred to by a “Type” and a “Class,” and PPE manufacturers are producing helmets in a variety of configurations to meet the various hazards on construction sites.
The Type refers to the level of protection from impact.
ANSI Type I. Type I reduces the force of impact resulting from a blow only to the top of the head.
ANSI Type II. Type II reduces the force of lateral impact resulting from a blow which may be received off center, from the side or to the top of the head.
The Class refers to the different levels of protection from electricity.
*Class E (Electrical): rated for 20,000 volts
*Class G (General): rated for 2,200 volts
*Class C (Conductive): does not offer electrical protection
Both Safe and Efficient
While hard hats have long been the top choice among construction workers due to their top of head protection, jobsite hazards come in from all directions and include more than an object falling from above. A worker could be knocked off a ladder and fall, or get struck by a piece of material being transported across the site. Like a hard hat, a safety helmet shields the top of the head, but unlike a standard hard hat, a Type II rated safety helmet could also offer increased protection from side impacts to the head, either from off-center or from the side. Although not a popular option, some workers may add a chin strap to their hard hat to prevent it from falling off. However, without one, because of its design, a hard hat can be prone to falling off, which leads to more than 80,000 head injuries per year according to RMI. Safety helmets have the chin straps built-in, making them more likely to be used. This keeps the helmet in place and will not fall off as easy as a hard hat in the event of a worker falling. Ensuring the PPE stays in place in the event of a fall, trip or slip is critical to the safety of the worker.
The increase in safety helmet adoption on jobsites has some manufacturers of head protection and other forms of PPE designing their helmets with safety, comfort, and user efficiency in mind. Some manufacturers, such as Milwaukee Tool, offer helmets that include padded suspension with an adjustable swinging ratchet for quick adjustment, or comfortably fitting adjustable buckle chin straps. Other features include anti-microbial sweatbands and helmet liners that prevent odor and bacteria build up and can even be removed to be machine washed. These new advancements mean crews do not need to trade-off safety for comfort. Like its hard hat counterpart, safety helmets include options like attachable visors and ear protection. These add-ons make typical hard hats and helmets more effective for the person wearing it.
One of the largest drawbacks of safety helmets is the cost. Safety helmets are more expensive than hard hats. Traditional hard hats can cost as little as $15 while helmets can cost upwards of $100 depending on the model and optional features. This upfront cost could be difficult for smaller contractors, companies or individuals to justify, and replacing a lost or misplaced hard hat is less of a financial burden. Although initially more expensive, contractors could ultimately create a safer work environment for their employees. For jobsites that mandate helmets, this could result in reduced costs for insurance coverage. With reduced insurance rates, contractors could bid more aggressively when vying for a contract.
Whether to embrace safety helmets could also come down to user preferences, especially for those who have spent years wearing the same style of head protection. The overall look and feel of the safety helmet is different from a hard hat and some workers may not feel comfortable switching to it just yet. It may take some time for workers to get used to the helmet’s streamlined, snug fit. Because the helmet attaches more closely to the head, and some workers might think a helmet feels heavier than a traditional hard hat while others may express feeling safer. Even with PPE manufacturers producing helmets intended to be safe, efficient and comfortable, the cultural shift to helmet-style head protection might be difficult for some in the construction industry to get on board with.
Preventing head injuries is a sustained effort from everyone on the construction site. Manufacturers, safety mangers and contractors have new opportunities to prevent head injuries on the construction site with safety helmets that a traditional style hard hat may not be able to protect against. With this new trend, some construction sites have already begun to switch over to safety helmets or are providing safety helmets as an option while others continue to wear hard hats depending on the type of work they have to do. The question remains: Will the hard hat remain the iconic symbol of the construction site 10 or 15 years from now, or will the safety helmet be just as accurate of a depiction? Only time will tell.
This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.