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The Evolution of Head Protection: From Hard Hats to Safety Helmets

By Ryan Barnes, Contributor

After over 100 years, the antiquated hard hat is being replaced with a safer, high-tech solution.

Hard hats have been the safety norm for more than 100 years. Invented by Edward W. Bullard in 1919, they were intended primarily to protect workers from falling objects. Although the hard hat served its purpose, it’s become antiquated as we now transition to a high-tech safety helmet.

After all, construction sites come with a long list of potential hazards. Whether dropped objects, falls, or material and chemical hazards, there’s a potential risk around every corner. The risk and injury most industrial tradespeople face today require protection from more than just a falling object, which is where a hard hat meets its limit.

Today, one of the leading causes of injury and even death on the construction site is from falling, not falling objects. According to OSHA, in 2020 there were 1,008 documented fatal falls in the construction industry, making up 35% of all construction accidents. With more than half of the construction industry working on scaffolds, there is a large risk for fall accidents and corresponding traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). These injuries or deaths are preventable, and OSHA even has a “Fall Protection Campaign” to educate the industry of this danger. Now, thanks to new, innovative technologies, workers can be better protected from potentially hazardous encounters on the job site.

More specifically, new types of safety helmets can protect against side-impact head injuries, whereas traditional hard hats do not offer such protection. The side-impact head injuries relating to falls, slips, and trips are among the leading causes of non-illness-related workplace death across all industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of these slip-, trip-, and fall-related head injuries happen from only six feet or less and represent one of the main reasons that many commercial general contractors are starting to mandate chin straps, along with other certifications and requirements, to ensure compliance with many high-profile job sites. When the helmet is missing a chin strap, like most general hard hats, it’s unlikely the helmet will stay on during a fall, let alone the fact that such helmets don’t have effective side-impact protection.

The Type II Safety Difference

In place of the traditional hard hat, leaders ranging from plant to construction safety officers are considering a new type of head protection – the American National Standard for Industrial Head Protection (ANSI) Type II safety helmet – with improved technologies born from action sport PPE. The helmets are often referred to as “climbing style” because they’re proven to improve the safety of construction workers and extreme sports enthusiasts alike.

While a Type II safety helmet requires a larger up-front investment compared to traditional hard hats, many organizations are making the switch because they are significantly more effective at protecting the workforce from serious injury or even death – a benefit that certainly outweighs the increased PPE cost. Other benefits of adopting Type II safety helmets include:

  • Less PPE turnover as safety-helmet lifetimes typically outlast that of hard hats thanks to more thoughtful, ruggedized designs
  • Overall lower risk of workplace injury due to side-impact safety and chin straps
  • Fewer injuries and thus fewer workers’ compensation claims
  • Reduced liability insurance costs tied to reduced injury risk
  • Overall risk reduction for the workplace while helping to promote a culture of safety on the job site
  • Fewer injuries resulting in greater worker productivity

Available Safety Features

Type II helmets provide protection from the front, side, and rear, providing 360-degree head protection whether working from heights with all the required fall protection, or primarily on the ground with ladders, lifts, or scaffolding. Also, Type II helmets go beyond the single ring found in hardhats, and often feature advanced technology only found in extreme sports gear. For example, common Type II safety helmet features that make them the ideal head protection tool include:

  • Impact Protection — Type II helmets include technologies that crumple instantly on impact to absorb maximum force, which protects the skull and brain from direct and angled impacts. This may reduce the risk of suffering a life-changing or life-threatening injury.
  • Helmet Padding — A replaceable helmet pad system significantly reduces the sharp twisting and compression of the brain during angled or oblique impacts – the primary cause of concussions. Plus, they are usually more comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
  • Identification Technology — Should an accident occur, some helmets include an integrated chip based on near-field communication (NFC) technology that stores emergency contacts and critical medical information for first responders to access. This is vital data when seconds matter and for when the helmet can’t safely be removed.
  • Modular Rear Brims — Helmets may come with a slight rear brim designed for rain deflection, or the traditional brim form factor to help protect against outdoor conditions.
  • Four-Point Chin Strap Systems — Buckle enclosures with an adjustable nylon 4-point strap, commonly found in action sports helmets, allow for maximum adjustability and easy one-handed use with gloves.

The New Standard

The largest commercial general contractors in the U.S. are making strides in adopting these Type II industrial safety helmets. As Type II helmets become the new standard, organizations have a new PPE tool to realize the ultimate goal of safety – to save lives and protect against serious injury within industrial trades.

At the end of the day, our heads and brains are the most important tools on the job site. Thus, we need to make the effort to protect our most precious asset, to make sure we can show up healthy and safe for the sake of the job and, more importantly, the workers’ livelihoods.

Ryan Barnes is the Founder and CEO, STUDSON, Inc. (studson.com).

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