Hard hats are a staple of any site worker’s safety kit, along with steel-toed boots and gloves.
They have proven to reduce serious injury, thus reducing lost hours from work not to mention the longer term implications from head injury. Yet innovation doesn’t stand still, even with hard hats. Equipment designers are now turning to high tech materials and new designs that further improve both safety and adaptability.
This isn’t to say construction hard hats haven’t evolved over time from their humble beginnings 100 years ago as simple leather caps or adaptations of metal military headgear.
In fact, head protection designs and materials have come a long way over the past century. Most current construction headgear is made from tough, durable thermoplastics or high density polyethylene. Colours are varied, and most models feature adjustable headbands for improved fit, and interior padding that can be washed when sweaty.
Today, carbon fibre is finding its way into construction hats. Carbon fibre is lightweight and extremely resilient to damage.
However, despite their impact resistance, carbon hard hats cost several times those of standard thermoplastic and high density polyethylene safety hats.
It’s more than just advances in materials that are modernizing today’s hard hats, however — the designs themselves are changing. This is because traditional construction hard hats have a flaw.
While they may protect workers from a blow from above, they risk falling off the worker’s head in the event of a fall from height, leaving the head unprotected.
A report from the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) found that “more than 2,200 workers died of a traumatic brain injury from 2003 to 2010. More than half of fatal work-related traumatic injuries were a result of falls — particularly from roofs, ladders and scaffolds.”
New designs that are more accurately described as safety helmets than hard hats seek to reduce this risk. You’ve seen such helmets on the heads of mountain climbers and search-and-rescue workers — the big feature is the chin strap which keeps the helmet in place.
Many of these new helmets are shaped to allow for over-the-ear hearing protection, offer options for safety visors of various sizes, and are well ventilated, resulting in greater comfort and improved wear-ability.
American construction firm Clark Construction has been testing 3,500 of the new safety helmets on sites across the United States.
Seth Randall, Clark’s Division Safety Director, said in an article posted on United Rentals website, “We’ve had a couple of incidents that made us open our eyes and say, ‘There has to be something better.’ We’ve already seen positive results in a couple of incidents that have occurred when the helmets have potentially saved an employee from any type of head trauma.”
Improved design functionality is important too. Milwaukee Tools is getting into PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), recently releasing a new construction hat with accessory slots and mounting points. These allow the easy attachment of clip-on headlamps, visors and hearing protection, even pencils.
Of course, improved safety isn’t free. “Is there a cost? Sure, there’s a cost,” said Clark Construction’s Randall. “But there’s also a cost to an injury when someone does fall. When you consider those costs and the effect of a head injury on an employee, it justifies any additional cost to the helmet.”
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont. based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to email@example.com.