Is It Time to Rethink Your Head Protection?

Is It Time to Rethink Your Head Protection?

Making a relatively simple switch could protect workers.

In the late 1960s, prior to the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s existence, 14,000 workers were dying as the result of workplace injuries each year. By 2020, the number of workplace fatalities had fallen to just shy of 5,000—a roughly 60 percent decline. 

This decline demonstrates the value that OSHA and the resulting focus on workplace safety provides to both employees and employers, but there remains room for improvement, particularly in the construction space. 

Of the 4,764 fatal workplace injuries reported in 2020, 1,034 were in the construction industry. Out of those 1,034 construction fatalities, 353 were caused by falls from a height. Thankfully, there are some simple steps employers can take to continue to improve these numbers and protect more workers on the job. 

One such step is to reconsider the protective equipment being used on-site to protect workers’ heads, especially during a fall. In recent years, more and more construction and industrial workers have been opting to wear safety-style helmets, instead of a traditional hard hat.

A traditional hard hat, whether ANSI Z89.1 Type I or Type II, is designed to protect primarily against impact made to the head by falling or swinging objects. A Type I hard hat, which is the most commonly used type in the construction industry, protects the top of the wearer’s head. A Type II hard hat protects the top and sides of the head. A safety helmet, which is typically classified as Type I, will usually offer enhanced side protection as well. It’s not uncommon for safety helmet manufacturers to reference performance clauses of EN 12492, the European mountaineering helmet standard, which includes side impact requirements beyond those of the typical ANSI Type I. This standard provides customers with an option of a helmet that doesn’t have the full protection of an ANSI Type II helmets, but that can still provide some side impact protection.  

Beyond mitigating impacts, safety helmets can enhance worker comfort as well. Helmets equipped with foam liners will distribute the weight of the helmet of the user’s head in a more uniform manner because it touches more of the workers head versus traditional strap suspensions. Think if you have a can of soup and you hold it with three fingers versus four. Which is easier to hold? Having additional touch points on your head with the helmet is no different and provides a more uniform fit. Foam liners also allow for additional comfort padding, which can help to provide cooling and capture sweat. 

A safety helmet offers enhanced protection against impact from a falling object, but it has the added benefit of keeping the wearer safe during a fall—a critical need in the construction industry. This added protection is due to the safety helmet’s integrated chin strap, which, when worn correctly, helps prevent the helmet from falling off during a fall. Chin straps also ensure that the helmet stays on after an impact, thereby protecting workers against secondary impacts. For example, consider someone who has fallen off a ladder. Their hard hat will take the first hit, but if their hat slips off, any rebound of their body subjects their head to potential injury. Chin straps help mitigate these types of secondary impact hazards associated with high energy events. 

Most ANSI Z89.1 Type I and Type II hard hats do not include a chin strap. However, the EN 12492 standard does mandate a chin strap and has performance requirements ensuring the chin strap is effective at keeping the helmet on the head in the event of an impact. Chin strap standards can vary globally, so it’s important for employers to ensure the helmet they choose for their workers is equipped with a comfortable chin strap that can help ensure that the helmet remains on a worker’s head at their jobsite. 

Despite other safety features and benefits—top- and side-impact protection, a streamlined design and a longer lifespan than most hard hats—the chin strap is arguably the main reason industrial employers have been moving towards a more widespread usage of safety helmets on the jobsite. 

But if safety helmets offer superior protection to workers, why haven’t all industrial employers made the switch yet? 

The primary deterrent most employers face to safety helmets is their cost. Unlike a traditional hard hat, which can cost as little as $15, a safety helmet usually sells for around $100. This pricing differential can be a significant barrier for employers to overcome. There are ways, however, for the higher up-front cost of safety helmets to be offset. 

According to the 2020 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, “falls to a lower level” cost the construction industry $2.5 billion dollars in workers compensation claims each year. “Falls on the same level” cost the industry $1.36 billion dollars each year. The same report also finds that falls—to a lower level or on the same level—account for nearly 40 percent of total workers compensation costs in the construction industry each year. These are significant numbers, but they are ones that can be reduced easily by increasing on-the-job protection against falls for workers through the adoption of safety helmets.  

In addition to helping reduce workers compensation costs, the use of safety helmets in construction can lead to a reduction in lost labor and productivity, which presents another opportunity for financial savings for employers, that can help offset the up-front cost of purchasing pricey safety helmets. 

Safety helmets have been gaining significant traction in recent years, and their popularity is expected to grow. This is largely due to the superior protection offered by this helmet style, as compared to traditional hard hats, but can also be attributed to an overall growth in the construction and infrastructure industries, which is also expected to continue. In 2021, the U.S. government passed a $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill, which will lead to significant federal spending on new infrastructure projects. The workers on these projects will need proper protection, and it’s reasonable to expect that many will opt for the added protection of the safety helmet. 

By making a relatively simple switch to safety helmets, construction and industrial employers can help protect their employees better while on the job site, while simultaneously reducing their workers compensation costs and hours of labor lost. The benefits of safety helmets are many—to both employee and employer—and their downsides, if any, are relatively minimal. The hope of many in the safety industry is that further adoption of safety helmets as standard jobsite protection will contribute to a decrease in the number of workers injured or killed on the job. Our workers deserve the best protection available and, in many situations, the safety helmet is just that. 

This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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