Don’t Be Hard-headed


August 1, 2008

When it comes to personal safety, use your brain. Wear your hard hat.

Hard hats are bulky, hot, tight, and uncomfortable, and often are just one more thing to remember when you are rushing to work. Some miners may try to rationalize not wearing appropriate headgear by pointing to its limitations – if a blow is strong enough, a hard hat may not help. Statistics indicate, however, that hard hats do protect workers from many injuries and save lives.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of accidents and injuries unveils that most workers who sustain head injuries do not wear head protection. Most are injured while performing their normal jobs at their regular work sites, where they are not required by their employers to wear hard hats.

The mining industry encompasses work of all types that involves risks of head injuries. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) requires hard hats for these work categories. Headgear is intended to provide limited protection from impact and penetration from falling objects. It should be constructed in a way to be effective in preventing injury from small falling objects – whether tools or rocks. It also should be designed to provide impact protection for the sides of the head and from electrical shock hazards. Even minor head injuries can cause loss of brain function and lead to comas, disabilities, and even death.

The modern hard hat

Workers in the construction industry began wearing hard hats almost 80 years ago, around World War I. The first “Hard-Boiled Hat,” patented in the United States in 1919 by E. D. Bullard Co., was made of steamed layers of glued canvas that were then hardboiled and painted black. Not long after developing the hard shell, Bullard also developed an internal suspension system for added protection and hard hat history unfolds.

Canvas hats were replaced by aluminum ones in 1939 for all but electrical work, and, in the 1940s, fiberglass hats became the rage. They were easier to manufacture as well as lighter in weight and more protective. In the 1950s, thermoplastics were discovered as a suitable material for hard hats. They were even easier to mold and shape. Today, most hard hats are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), but some workers, especially those who buy their own equipment, prefer brown fiberglass hard hats, which balance well on the head and are resistant to scrapes and stains. Other characteristics of the modern hard hat include the following:

  • It has a rigid shell to deflect blows to the head;
  • It has a suspension system inside that spreads the helmet’s weight over the top of the head acting like a shock absorber, cushioning the blow;
  • It may serve as an insulator against electric shocks;
  • It shields scalp, face, neck, and shoulders against splashes, spills, and drips; and
  • It may be fitted with a visor, ear protector, mirror, light, and chin strap for additional protection.

Safety requirements

Under government regulations (30 CFR56/57.15002), employers – who are responsible for managing workplace health and safety – must require that workers wear hard hats when their work involves certain hazards, including the following:

  • Being struck on the head by a falling object;
  • Striking against fixed or protruding objects; and
  • Being exposed to electrical conductors.

Hard hats must meet the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard Z89.1-1986 for vertical impact and penetration. An appropriate hart hat should protect a head from injury from small falling objects. The shell, or outside of a hard hat, should be rounded to protect the crown of the head. If worn properly, the shell – in conjunction with the suspension inside the hat – will reduce the impact of the blow to the head.

In 1997, ANSI published a revision to its Z89.1 protective standard that has not yet been adopted officially as part of Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, but most manufacturers already comply with it:

  • Type I hats are designed to reduce the force of impact from a vertical blow to the top of the head.
  • Type II hats are intended to provide protection against both vertical and lateral impact and penetration requirements. It has an additional foam inner lining made of expanded polystyrene (EPS). Safety managers will determine which jobs and areas of the work site require Type II protection.
  • Hard hats are also made to protect workers from electrical currents and checked for combustibility and flammability.

Hard hats are available in different colors, which can be used to signify workers’ roles: for example, white for supervisors, blue for technical advisors, red for safety inspectors, and yellow for workmen.

Care for your hard hat

Employers are also responsible for training workers on when and where to wear hats and on how to care for them to preserve their protective qualities.

Last summer, MSHA issued a Program Information Bulletin (P07-16) about hard hats because officials had become alarmed by the practice of cutting apart and re-gluing the shells of hard hats among workers in the industry who wanted to make their hats more stylish and comfortable. The PIB insists that hard hats should not be modified in this drastic way. It states that mine operators must ensure that hard hats are not modified and that they are properly maintained.

The PIB warns miners that these modified hats are unlikely to provide the level of protection promised by the manufacturers. This extensive structural modification reduces the hat’s performance capability and puts workers in greater danger of injury. “Miners must wear suitable hard hats and maintain them in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions,” it reiterates.

Training should include a review of the following general guidelines for maintaining safe hard hats:

  • Inspect your hard hat before and after each use.
  • If your hat is involved in an impact accident, replace it immediately.
  • If your hat is dropped from an elevation of 20 feet or more, replace it.
  • If you wear your hard hat every day in a harsh environment and sunlight, such as a quarry or yard, replace it after two years. Factory, warehouse, and office workers hats may be effective for three years. When your hat is new, write the two-year replacement date clearly inside the hat with a marker. Inspect your entire team’s dates at routine training meetings to keep everyone aware of the importance of staying on schedule with replacements.
  • Replace interior suspension webbing every year. Sweat, hair lotion, and sunscreen can contaminate it and accelerate wear.
  • Clean your hat with mild soap and warm water. Let it air dry.
  • Never use solvents or a cleaner on your hat.
  • Never store your hat where it will be exposed to direct sunlight or to extreme hot or cold temperatures – for example, avoid leaving your hat in the window of your car or pickup where it is exposed to direct sunlight and heat.
  • Don’t place stickers within 1/2 inch of brim and don’t cover up cracks or other damage. Although stickers are okay as an expression of corporate identity or a worker’s individual personality, beware that they could have a metal component that could act as a conductor and cause electric shock.
  • Don’t drill holes in hard hats to apply nametags. This will weaken the ability of the helmet to absorb a blow.
  • Check for a good fit, especially with the suspension on the nape of neck. The brow cap should fit snuggly on the forehead.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for sizing the hat correctly for your head.

Information contained in this article was provided through the Safety & Health Committee of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association.

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