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Putting a Cap on Head Injuries

Understanding the Importance of Head Protection.

By Ryan Corcoran, Contributor

A helmet’s outer shell helps deflect impact, but the force energy is distributed predominantly through the suspension system. Image courtesy of Global Glove.

Choosing head protection can be overwhelming with multiple styles, types, and classes available in the marketplace. Keeping focus on what users require should be a top priority for safety professionals. Knowledge of current and upcoming standards is imperative to providing proper recommendation of head protection. The key points to look for when assessing a hazard is whether or not there is potential exposure to high or low voltage, as well as the angle of potential impact. This article summarizes different variations of head protection, existing standards, and proposed standards.

Types of Head Protection

Helmets come in five typical styles: cap, full brim, vented, climbing, and bump cap. Each has unique features and applications.

  • Cape Style Helmets: Cap style helmets have a brim on the front to shade the eyes from the sun and rain. When vertical visibility is required, cap models that have been rated for reverse donning can be turned around. This eliminates the shade and rain protection but greatly increases the upwards view. Reverse donning is achieved by reversing the installation of the suspension and wearing the helmet backward.
  • Full Brim Helmets: Full brim helmets have a fully orbital brim that provides shade from the sun and 360-degree rain deflection. They can also be worn backwards or forwards depending on how the suspension is installed.
  • Vented Helmets: Vented helmets have a series of ventilation ports usually placed indirectly laterally along the crown protrusion to keep the rain out. Vented helmets are beneficial when operating in high-heat environments. They also provide a level of comfort and coolness when physical exertion causes perspiration and heat. When operating in cold environments or environments that have potential chemical exposure, non-vented versions should not be utilized.
  • Climbing/Rescue Style Helmets: Climbing/rescue style helmets, which have been popular in sports and European markets for years, have recently become more popular in the U.S. market. These helmets are used when working at heights and in confined spaces. They feature a built-in, four-point chin strap that ensures the helmet stays on if a fall or impact occurs. The chin strap also prevents the helmet from falling off when working at height and potentially injuring those below. When wearing a cap or full brim style helmet in confined spaces, the brim may get in the way, potentially knocking off the helmet or impeding movement. Climbing/rescue helmets have a very small brim and perform well in confined spaces due to the streamlined styling and chin strap. Cap, full brim, vented, and climbing style helmets each have multiple type and class options outlined in the ANSI Z89.1 standard.
  • Bump Caps: Bump caps are not covered by the ANSI Z89.1 standard for head protection. They are intended to protect from contact hazards that may result in bumps or small lacerations. These generally come in two styles: traditional bump cap and baseball cap style. Traditional bump caps look similar to cap-style helmets but are made with thinner, more lightweight material that cannot withstand high-level impacts. Baseball cap-style bump caps have an injection-molded shell that is encased in the top of a baseball-style hat. The baseball-style bump cap shields eyes from sun and rain are designed for use in low-risk areas only.

Climbing/rescue style helmets, which have been popular in sports and European markets for years, have recently become more popular in the U.S. market. Image courtesy of Global Glove.

How Do Helmets Protect the Wearer?

A helmet’s outer shell helps deflect impact, but the force energy is distributed predominantly through the suspension system. The suspension separates the outer shell from the user’s cranium so that the helmet absorbs the impact energy, not the head.

Types of Suspensions

Four-point and six-point are the most common types of suspension systems. Four-point has two straps that connect diagonally to four points on the hard hat. Six-point suspensions have two diagonal straps (like a four-point suspension) plus a third strap which connects to either side of the helmet. Four and six-point suspensions are both deemed acceptable and will pass the ANSI Z89.1 testing. The main difference between them, besides cost, is that six-point suspensions offer protection from top-of-the-head, off-center, and side blows, while four-point suspensions protect from top-of-the-head and side blows.

Suspension System Features

Suspension systems require an adjustable mechanism that secures the helmet to the user’s head. Slide lock and ratcheting mechanisms are the two types primarily used. Ratcheting systems are easily adjustable by rotating a knob to attain the desired fit. The size of ratchet knobs varies depending on the manufacturer. When using gloves, it is much easier to adjust suspension fitting with a bigger knob and adequate grip. Slide lock suspensions, which are more cost-effective, are operated by depressing the tabs while adjusting to the desired fit. Quality and effectiveness of each type of suspension may vary by manufacturer. Having the helmet properly fitted is key to optimal comfort and performance of the helmet.

Understanding the ANSI Z89.1 Standard for Helmets

The ANSI Z89.1 standard currently categorizes two types of head protection with three subclasses. Type One helmets are the most common. Type One classification helmets only protect from force impact and penetration on the crown of the head. Type Two helmets are used in situations where impact or penetration can occur from a blow to the crown and or sides of the head.

Type One and Two Subclasses

Three subclasses apply to both Type One and Type Two helmets: Class E, G, and C. Class E (electrical) rated helmets can take exposure of high voltage conductors up to 20,000 volts. Class E helmets are only rated to protect the head from this level of voltage. Class G-rated helmets require exposure to be limited to low voltage conductors up to 2,200 volts and only protect the head from voltage exposure. Full brim helmets are predominately Class E and G due to the flat base design and lack of accessory slots. Class C helmets are non-conductive and often come in vented versions, have accessory slots, and are designed to be used with attachable hearing protection. They should not be used in electrical situations.

New and Upcoming Standards

The ISEA (International Safety Equipment Association) is pioneering new standards for bump caps and climbing/rescue style helmets to further clarify proper use. Currently, bump caps are not rated under ANSI Z89.1 standards. The proposed standard will change that. Testing and ratings will be similar to those currently used to categorize traditional hard hats. The standard will be similar to the EN812 standard, which is the European standard for bump caps, but with some improvements. The ISEA is also pursuing climbing/rescue style helmet standards. The testing will be similar to the current EN14292 European mountaineering standard with more of a focus on protection from falls instead of traditional impact scenarios. These proposed standards are in their infancy but, if adopted, will give clarity and consistency to the use of climbing helmets and bump caps in U.S. workplaces. This will help safety professionals choose the right helmet for the job.

Choosing the Right Helmet

In some instances, the style of the hard hat can be driven by user preference, but in most cases, environmental hazards are the most important considerations to take into account. Always assess the potential exposure to electrical voltage and the potential angle of impact before choosing appropriate head protection. Possible chemical exposure and weather conditions should also be considered.

There are several style variations and ANSI types and classifications to consider when choosing the right helmet for a hazard. Having a summary knowledge of this information assists EHS professionals in choosing the correct helmet for the job. CS

Ryan Corcoran is the Director of Product Management for Bullhead Safety and a Regional Manager for Global Glove and Safety Manufacturing, Inc (

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