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Back to basics: Head protection

Author: Jay Kumar, EHS Daily Advisor Editor

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine guidance on head protection.

It’s no revelation that workplace head injuries are a major safety concern. Are you providing the proper head protection for your employees?

The hard hat has been the traditional head protection for workers on construction and other work sites. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has two standards covering head protection:

  • 29 CFR 1910.135 says you must require employees to wear protective helmets in areas where there is a risk of impact to, or penetration of, the head.
  • 29 CFR 1926.100 specifically refers to head protection requirements for workers in construction, demolition, and renovation

The standards require that employers provide head protection that meets any of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) consensus standards Z89.1-2009, Z89.1-2003, or Z89.1-1997.

ANSI Z89.1 defines two types of hard hats and three classes based on the level of electrical hazard protection provided. Type 1 protects the top of the head and is commonly used in the U.S., while Type II protects the top and sides of the head and is commonly used in Europe. The classes of hard hats are:

    • Class G (General), rated for 2,200 volts
    • Class E (Electrical), rated for 20,000 volts
  • Class C (Conductive), does not offer electrical protection

The move to safety helmets

But OSHA noted that traditional hard hats have some shortcomings. The agency announced it’s providing its employees with modern safety helmets to provide better protection when they’re at inspection sites.

Hard hats protect the top of a worker’s head but provide minimal side impact protection and lack chin straps, according to OSHA. Without chin straps, traditional hard hats can fall off a worker’s head if they slip or trip. Hard hats also lack vents, which traps heat inside.

The agency published a Safety and Health Information Bulletin (SHIB) on November 22, detailing the key differences between traditional hard hats and more modern safety helmets and the advancements in design, materials, and other features that help better protect workers’ entire heads.

Safety helmets use a combination of materials, including lightweight composites, fiberglass, and advanced thermoplastics, according to the SHIB, while hard hats are made of hard plastics.

In addition, safety helmets may offer face shields or goggles to protect against projectiles, dust, and chemical splashes. Others offer built-in hearing protection and/or communication systems to enable clear communication in noisy environments.

In the SHIB, the agency recommended several uses for safety helmets, including:

  • Construction sites: For construction sites, especially those with high risks of falling objects and debris; impacts from equipment; or slips, trips, and falls, safety helmets have enhanced impact resistance and additional features that offer superior protection compared with the components and construction of traditional hard hats.
  • Oil and gas industry: In these sectors, where workers face multiple hazards, including potential exposure to chemicals and severe impacts, safety helmets with additional features can provide comprehensive protection.
  • Working from heights: For tasks or jobs that involve working from heights, safety helmets offer protection of the entire head and include features that prevent the safety helmet from falling off.
  • Electrical work: For tasks involving electrical work or proximity to electrical hazards, safety helmets with nonconductive materials (Class G and Class E) provide protection to prevent electrical shocks. However, some traditional hard hats also offer electrical protection.
  • High-temperature environments: In high temperatures or where there’s exposure to molten materials, safety helmets with advanced heat-resistant properties can provide additional protection to workers.
  • Specialized work environments: Jobs that require integrated face shields, hearing protection, or communication devices benefit from safety helmets designed with these features or the ability to add them onto the helmets.
  • Specific regulatory requirements: Where safety helmets are mandated by regulations or industry standards, employers must comply with these requirements to ensure worker safety compliance.
  • Low-risk environments: Even in settings with no overhead hazards, safety helmets will provide comprehensive protection, especially where the risks can become more severe.

Proper storage of head protection

OSHA’s SHIB also offered tips for proper storage of head protection, which can help maintain structural integrity and prevent damage. The tips are as follows:

  • Clean and dry head protection before storage. After each use, clean the exterior with mild soap and water and ensure no dirt, debris, or chemicals remain that might compromise structural integrity. Allow head protection to air dry in a cool, dry place. Avoid direct sunlight, extreme temperatures, or corrosive substances during storage.
  • Inspect shell and suspension system. Before using head protection, carefully inspect the outer shell for cracks, dents, or other signs of damage. Examine the headband and chin strap for wear and tear.
  • Check for labels and certification marks. Look for labels and certification marks inside the head protection. These indicate that the product meets the necessary safety standards and requirements.
  • Verify date of manufacture. Locate the date of manufacture, which is typically imprinted on the inside. Head protection has a limited lifespan, so using expired head protection may compromise its protective capabilities. The manufacturer’s guidelines will provide the recommended lifespan of the specific model.
  • Examine accessories and attachments. Inspect additional accessories or attachments such as face shields, goggles, or earmuffs for damage or signs of wear. Make sure they are securely fastened to the head protection and functioning correctly.
  • Check for proper fit. Ensure the head protection fits comfortably and securely on your head. Adjust the suspension system to achieve a snug fit without excessive pressure points. Head protection should not be too loose or too tight.
  • Evaluate for damaged or loose parts. While wearing the head protection, gently shake your head to check for any loose or rattling components. If you notice anything usual or suspect damage, refrain from using it and have it inspected by a qualified person.
  • Inspect interior cushioning. If your head protection has additional cushioning or padding for extra comfort and impact absorption, inspect the padding for wear or compression. If it shows signs of deterioration, contact the manufacturer for replacement options.
  • Assess previous impact damage. If your head protection has experienced an impact or has been subjected to a significant force, retire it immediately, even if there’s no visible damage. Head protection is designed for single-use impact protection and may not retain its full effectiveness after an incident.
  • Keep records. Keep records of each inspection, noting the date, any findings, and actions taken. Regularly document the date of purchase and any relevant information about the head protection to track its lifespan accurately.


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