Protect the Asset: Understanding Head Protection
By David Ivey, Contributor
Falling objects represent a serious hazard for workers at many types of jobsites. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 217 deaths were caused by workers being struck by falling objects or equipment in 2020.1 In construction alone, these types of accidents accounted for 8% of all fatalities. According to Rachel Walla of Ally Safety, 84% of fatal head injuries are sustained by employees not wearing head protection.2
Fortunately, head protection is a common and inexpensive form of PPE that is widely available and easy to wear. But safety precautions in the workplace are evolving rapidly. Head protection technology is becoming more refined and tested to rising safety standards.
The classic hard hat is no longer the best and only option for protecting your head on the job. More sophisticated safety helmets are now available that offer superior head protection — but are they necessary, and when is it worth it to upgrade?
The Anatomy of Head Protection
Head protection in the United States is classified based on two sets of criteria: protection from impacts and protection from electricity.
A helmet’s level of protection from impacts is denoted by its Type:
- Type 1 (Type I): designed to protect from impact to the top of the head.
- Type 2 (Type II): designed to protect from impact to the top of the head and from lateral impacts off-center, or to the back or sides of the head.
A helmet’s level of protection from electricity is characterized by its Class:
- Class C (conductive): offers no protection from electric shock.
- Class G (general): offers protection from low-voltage electrical conductors (must withstand 2,200 volts)
- Class E (electrical): offers protection from high-voltage electrical conductors (proof-tested to 20,000 volts)
For example, a safety helmet listed as Type 2, Class C is intended to protect against impacts from both the top and sides but not from electricity hazards.
Classic plastic hard hats are generally Type 1, Class G. Hard hats consist of an outer shell — typically high-density polyethylene — and an interior suspension harness made of nylon webbing and bands of polyethylene, vinyl or nylon. The suspension harness can be adjusted to fit, and many hard hats come with chin straps that offer a level of protection comparable to a Type 1 safety helmet.
Safety helmets are constructed similarly but include additional safety elements and protective padding to absorb the shock of various types of impacts. All safety helmets include a chin strap to keep the unit securely in place, even in the event of a fall. Having head protection securely fastened with a chin strap protects a fallen worker’s head from striking any nearby objects or surfaces if they swing or tip unexpectedly during fall arrest.
Which Helmet When?
OSHA does not have any specific rules about when to use hard hats versus safety helmets. Instead, it offers only broad guidance3 about the need for employees to wear a protective helmet when working in areas that pose a risk of injury from falling objects. OSHA gives several acceptable American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards that define suitable head protection, but none of these specify when the different types of head protection need to be used.
If you look at a standard hard hat and a safety helmet side by side, they both meet the same requirements, and both have a suspension system under the helmet. Both Type 1 and Type 2 safety helmets can be OSHA and ANSI compliant. So, which should you use when?
A basic hard hat or Type 1 helmet may be sufficient for workers at ground level where the primary risk is an object falling on them from directly above.
Anyone working at heights or around moving objects that could strike them from behind or the sides should opt for a Type 24 helmet. Type 2 helmets are vastly superior in case of a fall. Similarly, if the worker must reach, lie down or bend over to do the job, they should have a Type 2 helmet both to prevent the helmet from falling off and to protect against off-center or lateral blows to the head when they aren’t standing upright.
Are Type 2 Helmets Better?
The biggest advantage of a hard hat5 is that it tends to be the least expensive option. It also has a smaller profile and attaches more closely to the head because it lacks the protective padding like you’d find inside a safety helmet.
However, typical hard hats don’t tend to last as long as safety helmets and have to be replaced more often, which cancels out the potential cost savings over time.
Safety helmets provide superior safety to hard hats because they include additional padding and offer protection from more kinds of blows to the head. They also tend to be more adjustable, allowing them to fit workers’ heads better and making them more comfortable to wear on the job. The chin strap ensures the safety helmet won’t fall off even in the event of a slip or fall, making them ideal for use by employees working at heights.
Safety helmets also often provide many other useful features, such as flip-down eye protection, clip-in ear protection and adjustable vents. You can find safety helmets with a clear or tinted visor for added protection that will stay clear of fog even with long-term daily use. Some safety helmets also include built-in lamp carrying clips compatible with elastic-banded headlamps and chin straps with an extra loop that can be attached to a worker’s harness.
Type 2 helmets are indeed a substantial step up from the traditional hard hat. They offer workers superior all-around head protection and the capacity for a host of additional safety and convenience features. Although they may be more expensive upfront, safety helmets usually offer employers a better long-term value because of the longevity of the products and the decreased likelihood of costly injuries. Because of all these factors, the industry is trending away from old-school hard hats in favor of more modern safety helmets.
David Ivey oversees the supply chain & product development of fall protection and safety equipment at Malta Dynamics. He also sits on the ANSI Z359 board and participates in many subcommittee meetings for safety products. Malta Dynamics designs, engineers and manufactures safety products for customers in construction, aviation, manufacturing, warehousing, masonry and more. The company’s high-quality safety equipment exceeds OSHA requirements (https://maltadynamics.com).
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