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New Research on Head Protection Research Takes Aim at TBIs

TBIs can cause symptoms ranging from headaches and dizziness to seizures and depression. © Richman Photo –

By: Maureen Paraventi

Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) among professional athletes such as football players have drawn an increasing amount of scrutiny in recent years, deservedly so. A TBI can occur in an instant and have long-range, even dire consequences. Sometimes symptoms appear right away, at other times, they emerge days or weeks after a bump, blow, jolt to the head or object penetration. Effects can be both physical and psychological, short- and long-term. Symptoms of a mild TBI may include headaches, nausea or vomiting; fatigue; speech problems; loss of balance; blurred vision; sensitivity to light and sound; memory or cognitive problems; mood changes; depression or anxiety or difficulty sleeping. A severe TBI can cause a loss of consciousness; convulsions or seizures; numbness in fingers and toes; profound confusion; agitation; slurred speech and coma.

Work-related TBIs (WR TBIs) haven’t made the headlines the same way sport-related ones have, but they are nonetheless a serious issue, particularly in the construction industry, where TBIs claimed the lives of some 2,210 workers from 2003 to 2010[1]. A nonfatal WR TBI can be life-changing for the employee who is unable to return to work in a timely manner – or ever – and costly for the employer who must foot the bill for long-term rehabilitation and disability.

Several recent and ongoing research projects by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are aimed at decreasing the number of WR TBIs through evaluations of the performance and design of personal protective equipment.

Chin Straps and Suspension System Tightness

In one, Evaluation of the Fall Protection of Type I Industrial Helmets[2], researchers John Z. Wu, Christopher S. Pan, Clayton Cobb, Andrew Moorehead, Tsui-Ying Kau and Bryan M. Wimer analyzed the fall protection performance of Type I industrial helmets, which are designed to reduce the force resulting from a blow to the top of the head. An instrumented manikin was used in head impact tests to determine how the use of a chin strap and the suspension system tightness affected protection performance. A total of 192 impact tests were done using two basic and two advanced helmet models. The variables that resulted in a dozen combinations of conditions were: with or without chin straps; three levels of suspension system tightness and two impact surfaces. The findings: All four helmet models demonstrated “excellent performance for fall protection compared to the barehead control group.” Predictably, the fall protection performance of the advanced helmet models was “substantially better” than that of the basic helmet models. The use of chin straps and differences in suspension system tightness did not product statistically significant effects.

Shock Absorption Improvements

Air bubbles are not just for packing material anymore. If you are in the construction industry, your head – or the heads of workers you supervise – may soon be safer due to those air-bubble cushions that ensure that those fragile items you order online arrive to you intact. This material’s shock-absorbing ability is attracting considerable interest, especially after 2021 NIOSH research found that adding liner made of it to a Type I construction helmet substantially increased shock absorption from large and repeated impacts. The personal protection industry took notice; newer construction helmet designs are in the works that have an additional foam layer between the belt-type suspension and the shell.

Because falls account for a significant number of WR TBIs in construction, one NIOSH study focused specifically on fall risks and head protection. Manikins wearing different types of construction helmets were hoisted to a height of five feet and then dropped onto two different surfaces. While all of the helmets performed well, the fall protection performance of the newer helmets was “substantially better than the basic helmets,” according to a NIOSH summary.

And finally, in collaboration with helmet manufacturers and ANSI representatives from the Z89.1 Standard for Industrial Head Protection Committee[3], NIOSH is embarking upon a new research project to evaluate improvements in helmet shock absorption performance with new, custom, air-bubble cushion liners.

Your Input is Being Sought

If construction helmets are or should be used at your workplace, NIOSH would like your responses to the following questions:

  • Is your workplace using Type I or Type II helmets?
  • What do you see as the advantages and drawbacks or limitations to Type I or II helmets?
  • Do your helmets have chin straps? Are the chin straps being worn? If so, during which applications?
  • Have you used any of the ‘newer’ helmets? If so, have you experienced advantages, drawbacks, or limitations?
  • For companies using ‘newer’ helmets, what factors were considered in deciding to purchase them?

Go to to provide input or learn more about NIOSH research into head protection. WMHS




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