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Hard hats under further review: 'Construction workers deserve the best headgear that can be designed'

Date Posted: July 4 2014

For a device that rests on top of the head, most construction workers probably only give a rare thought to the humble hard hat.

But the good people at NIOSH – the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health – are taking a closer look at the design of the construction workers’ hard hat, and whether it might be improved.

Leading the way in studying hard hat design is Christopher Pan, a NIOSH engineer and project officer. Spurred by insurance companies and in conjunction with hard hat manufacturers, Pan said he and others at NIOSH intend to involve “all industry stakeholders” from construction to look at improving the hard hat’s design.

That includes NIOSH, individual workers, contractors, existing academic studies, medical academia, hard hat manufacturers and others.

“At this point we haven’t done any testing, and we can’t say there’s anything wrong with the existing design,” Pan said. “But we’re going to look at every possible approach, and if the current design isn’t appropriate, how do we improve it?”

Private donations have been raised to help fund the research, but Pan said he doesn’t expect it to be a costly process, and the project has an expected duration of four years. Existing hard hat manufacturers already have two general types of headgear on the market, under ANSI standard “Type 1,” which protect the top of the head and which most workers wear, and “Type 2,” which are more expensive but are designed to limit injuries from top and side impacts.

According to the Construction Labor Report citing Department of Labor statistics, 193 construction workers died from brain injuries in 2012. And year after year, falls are typically the leading cause of construction fatalities.

One primary area of research, Pan said, will include how to keep a hard hat in place to limit head injuries from a fall. “How to make a hard hat stick to a worker’s head when he’s falling is a real challenge,” Pan said.

Another area that will get researchers’ attention is reducing neck and spine injuries. “During a fall, all the force of the impact doesn’t necessarily go to the head and the brain,” Pan said. “Some energy also goes to the neck and spinal cord. We will look at how to reduce those injuries, too.

According to NIOSH,  Edward W. Bullard designed the first “hard hat” as protective headgear for miners. He combined his experience with Army helmets during World War I and that resulted in the development of the “Hard Boiled Hat” in 1919. The name was derived from the use of steam during the hat manufacturing process. Joseph Strauss, the engineer in charge of constructing the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s, requested that Bullard adapt his mineworker helmet to help protect bridge workers from falling rivets. The Golden Gate Bridge site thus became the first designated “Hard Hat Construction Area.”

The design of the hard hat really hasn’t changed much for more than 40 years, but since then improvements have been made in military headgear, motorcycle helmets, and even baseball helmets.

Not only have new types of protective materials been introduced during that time, there have been other advancements in the way safety testing is performed, such as better crash test dummies in the automotive business. Pan said NIOSH intends to take advantage of that new technology, including drop towers and computer simulation, in studying hard hat design.

Pan said easing injuries for the workers under the hard hats is what is driving the research. Perhaps better designed headgear could allow a fall victim to reduce brain trauma and allow him the ability to walk again, or reduce his time in the hospital from six months to three months.

“I know that this is a complex issue, and that many parties are trying to come up with improved protective headgear, but it is apparent that it is now time to put advances in engineering science, medical science, material science and personal protective equipment design into practice,” Pan said. “Construction workers deserve the best headgear that can be designed, and we intend to give it to them, with the cooperation and support from manufacturers, standards committee members, safety advocates and construction workers themselves.”