Evolving Helmet Safety for the Most At Risk Profession

Evolving Helmet Safety for the Most At Risk Profession

PPE for Construction Jobsites needs to incorporate new innovations in order to address all causes of traumatic brain injuries.

Construction workers are responsible for building the places where we spend our lives — our homes, offices, stores and communities. Yet these workers face some of the greatest risks on the job: Ranked fourth on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) list of most dangerous jobs, there must be a continual concerted effort to keep construction workers safe from hazards on job sites.

So, what can be done to help an industry of people doing some of the most dangerous work out there?  

Identify the Risks 

According to OSHA, the four leading hazards, or “Fatal Four,” that construction workers face on job sites include falls, being struck by an object, electrocution and being caught between two or more objects. The danger that several of these highlighted hazards presents can vary based on how these accidents occur: Depending on how an accident takes place, workers can potentially be at risk of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).

Some of the biggest risks that imperil those in the construction industry are slips, trips, and falls. Falling and flying objects and working on elevated surfaces or on ladders presents increased dangers that can amplify risk. These dangers can lead to accidents that vary in severity, or even workplace fatalities.

Given the nature of construction jobsites, construction workers are at heightened risk for TBIs as well: Falls — especially from roofs, ladders, and scaffolds — led to more than half of all fatal workplace TBI-related deaths for those in construction.

Understanding the root causes of TBIs can help lead the industry towards improved safety for workers against the risks associated, and support in enforcing workplace safety. For the construction industry, a stronger knowledge of rotational motion is a good starting point. 

Understanding Rotational Motion 

When a person falls and their head strikes the ground, the impact will typically occur at an angle. This combination of forces — rotational forces (angular acceleration) and rotational energy (angular velocity) — exposes the person to rotational motion, which can be serious and result in a variety of injuries, ranging in severity depending on the type of impact sustained. Exposing the brain to rotational motion can cause movement of brain cells relative to each other, which can lead to shearing, and can result in damage to the brain’s axons, the cable transmitters of neurons.

Different impacts to the head lead to different types of injuries. Rotational motion can cause diffuse injuries like diffuse axonal injury and subdural hematoma, while linear impacts (an impact directly on top of the head) to the head can cause focal injuries such as fractures and contusions. While highly dangerous, these types of accidents are not always fatal: TBIs can lead to time away from work, or even life-long afflictions. 

A 2022 survey conducted by Nielsen, a consumer survey company, and commissioned by Mips unveiled that the vast majority of American helmet buyers did not understand the cause of concussions and how to reduce them using helmets. Among the most significant findings was that 70 percent of American helmet buyers did not know the term “rotational motion.” Without understanding the concept of rotational motion, the survey found that when purchasing a new helmet, American helmet buyers did not consider how well the helmet could protect against rotational motion.

Many helmets might focus primarily on linear impacts and not fully address the complexities of real-life accidents. While OSHA mandates the use of hard hats and head protection for workers exposed to head injury risks, there’s an opportunity for enhanced designs and technology in head protection gear to further protect the wearer from head trauma and injury.

However, there have been promising developments intended to increase helmet safety and usage on job sites: In July, OSHA proposed a new rule that would require employers to provide workers with PPE that properly fit each employee. This proposed rule will significantly impact helmet usage on jobsites: Employees are far more likely to wear helmets and hard hats that fit correctly and comfortably.

Bringing Helmet Safety Into the 21st Century 

Although neuroscience has advanced to better understand the cause and consequences of brain injuries, very little has changed in present-day helmet and hard hat design over the course of the past century. While today’s construction helmet standards test the impact of linear forces, they do not take into account rotational motion. There have been promising developments for some standards in both the sports and moto industries in terms of addressing the impact and consequences of rotational motion; however, the construction industry has yet to update standards for helmet testing to consider rotational motion.

The construction industry is pivotal for maintaining and building our societies. Although little can be done to eradicate all the dangers that construction workers face on a regular basis, supporting workers, educating them about risks, and promoting proper PPE usage are crucial first steps. When selecting their helmets, construction workers should take into consideration whether their helmets are equipped with a system designed to address rotational motion.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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