Using Your Head

July 13, 2007
As the head’s protective armor against falling objects, hard hats are the first piece of PPE that construction workers grab when going to a job site. Yet traumatic head injuries still are on the rise. Experts try to explain why.

As the corporate vice president for safety at Donley Inc., a large construction contractor in Northeast Ohio, Carlos Figueroa Jr. knows a thing or two about head protection. But an incident a couple of years ago brought the importance of wearing a hard hat home.

According to Figueroa, a female worker was working on a job site near two co-workers who were trying to move a section of deck panels. All of a sudden, one of the panels fell down, striking her and knocking her to the floor. Because she was wearing a hard hat, the only injury she incurred was a scrape on her forehead from the bill of her hard hat as she fell down.

The worker was so appreciative of the hard hat saving her, says Figueroa, that she wanted to keep it as a souvenir.

“She told me, ‘Man, if I wasn’t wearing that hard hat ... Although I got this little scrape, it took the brunt of that hit,’” Figueroa remembers.

Examples like this one clearly bring the message home: Hard hats saves lives. If the Donley worker had not been wearing head protection, she could have incurred serious trauma to the head, disabling her or, worse, killing her.

Despite this and other anecdotal reports, traumatic head injuries still are a frequent occurrence among workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the majority of workers who suffered impact injuries to the head were not wearing head protection. Many experts attest that as they pass by random job sites on their way to work, they often see employees working without hard hats.

So if hard hats save lives, why do workers continue to suffer head injuries from falling objects or impacts to the head from falls?

BLS reports that in most instances in which head injuries occurred, employers did not require workers to wear head protection. Of those workers wearing hard hats, all but 5 percent indicated that they were required by their employers to wear them.

There are other reasons why workers don’t wear hard hats. Several experts claim that the problem lies with workers who take their safety for granted and aren’t wearing their head protection when they should. Others claim that the problem lies with the equipment.

Tom Webb, head protection product manager for Fibre Metal, now a North Safety product brand, says it is a combination of all three.

“Many times, safety equipment – not just hard hats but all sorts of equipment – is looked at as an expense rather than an investment,” Webb says. “And you get what you pay for.”

According to Webb, workers tend to believe that just because they have something on their head, they already are protected. Many times, employees do not understand that hard hats must be fitted like any other piece of PPE, and will walk around with a cap wobbling around on their head. Or, they they think that not wearing a hard hat for a couple of hours won’t bring any consequence. Unfortunately, many of the head injuries have occurred during these type of situations, Webb says.

“Think about all the places you can hit your head when just walking around the house,” Webb explains. “So imagine an industrial worker walking around with the possibility of hitting the corner of a piece of steel [with his head].”

Jim Byrnes, product line manager for head protection at MSA in Pittsburgh, agrees that employers should educate workers on the importance of head protection and proper fit and maintenance of equipment.

“I don’t think employers keep as good a track of employees as they should when it comes to wearing and not wearing their safety equipment,” he states. “And employees, they’ll wear it, but also take it off. Some people don’t see the importance.”

A Comfortable Fit

Why don’t employees wear head protection? The issue of comfort frequently is mentioned in discussions about PPE, and head protection isn’t any different. Complaints of heavy hard hats or hard hats with no ventilation are common. As with any type of protective gear, the more comfortable it is, the more likely it will be worn.

But comfort can mean different things to different people, according to Byrnes, which is why he likes to refer to it in terms of “wearability.” For instance, Byrnes contends that just because a product is lighter, it doesn’t automatically mean it will be more comfortable for the user.

“We’ve had people say, ‘I just want a helmet to be a lot lighter and then it would be a lot more comfortable.’ That’s not always true,” Byrnes states. “Some helmets can be a little heavier and sometimes be more comfortable.”

Even Weight Distribution

The key to a more comfortable or “wearable” hard hat, Byrnes says, is to have a good center of gravity. Wearability changes depending on the number of hours a hard hat is worn. Something that is comfortable for 1 hour might not be so comfortable after 8 hours.

Even weight distribution – spreading the weight of the hard hat onto more surface area for the sake of comfort for the worker – is a concept that Cynthiana, Ky.-based Bullard is taking seriously. So much so that the company has redesigned all its Type I hard hats from the ground up, says Michael Lloyd, Bullard’s product manager for head protection.

The company offers both four-point and six-point suspension hard hats, with the former featuring two straps attaching to four places in the suspension and the latter having three straps attaching to six places in the suspension. Having more straps means that the weight of the hat is spread onto more surface area, Lloyd says.

“Throughout the course of the day, [having twice the surface area] makes a big difference,” he adds.
Instead of having the suspension automatically sewn by a machine, the straps now are hand-sewn so that they are precisely the same length, Lloyd says. In addition, another advantage of having the ribbon suspension hand-sewn is that they can mold the keys that attach from the suspension into the shell, which gives the keys a smooth surface all the way across to the top of the head.

Wearing head protection in 90-degree F heat or higher can take its toll on workers and prompt them to take their hard hats off for a period of time to cool off. This is a dangerous practice if they are at a site where there is a hazard of overhead falling material. Manufacturers such as Fibre Metal constantly are looking at different materials – such as fiberglass – to protect workers from high-heat environments. MSA, for instance, offers vented helmets that allow for improved air circulation. And most of the manufacturers offer options such as full-brimmed helmets for workers who are in the sun for long periods of time.

What Employers Can Do

Figueroa sits down with Donley’s purchasing manager a couple of times a year to sift through the many head protection product lines to see if there is something new on the market. If they see a new line of hard hats that appears interesting or innovative, they ask for a sample and test it by either wearing the hard hat themselves or by asking employees to wear it for the day.

Figueroa says that for him and his crew, a quality hard hat is one that has a ratchet suspension as opposed to a pinlock suspension. With a ratchet suspension, the user turns a knob on the hard hat and adjusts it until the worker feels the hat fits him or her comfortably. A pinlock suspension is similar to the ones that baseball caps have, where pins fit into one of the little grooves on the plastic slide. In addition, Figueroa favors hard hats with ventilation holes to keep employees cool, especially during the summer months.

Figueroa says the company takes so much pride in choosing the best hard hats that Donley has its logo stamped across the helmet.

“Our hard hats are custom-made with our logo on them. We look at [them] as an extension of who we are and make sure we have what we believe is a quality hard hat,” Figueroa explains.

Type I vs. Type II

Typically, hard hats are made to meet ANSI standard Z89.1- 1997 for top impact. They protect the head from falling objects. Type II helmets, on the other hand, provide protection from blows to both the top and sides of the head. According to Ron DesJardins, North Safety’s product manager for head protection, the standard was modified to accept Type II hats back in 1997 “because a lot of injuries that were taking place on the job site were a result of impacts to the side of the hat.”

(Editor’s note: In 2003, ANSI published a revision to the Z89.1-1997 standard. The most significant changes to the 1997 version were made to harmonize with other national standards for head protection that test and evaluate equipment performance. In addition, many physical requirements for helmet components that do not provide added user value or that limited design or performance have been removed.)

The shell in a Type II hat is heavier, with liners inside the helmet that provide added impact protection. The downside of the Type II hats, DesJardins says, is that the product is expensive to buy because it is more expensive to manufacture. According to him, Type II hard hats currently are used for more state and federal government projects than general industry.

DesJardins asserts if workers from general industry wore Type II hard hats, there would be fewer head injuries. “I guess it would be practical to assume that if Type II hats were widely adopted, then they could reduce potential head injuries occurring today from lateral impacts,” says DesJardins.

However Ron Cross, Rust Constructors’ corporate safety director, says he doesn’t see how the construction industry would get good use out of Type II hats. His company, named one of America’s Safest Companies by Occupational Hazards in 2006, boasts of not having had a single head injury since 1997. Although Rust Constructors has a well-established safety program, Cross says traditionial hard hats have been doing the job.

“Since [1997], Rust Constructors has not had a single head injury due to a failure of a hard hat from any angle,” says Cross. “Unless it was cost-effective, [side-impact protection] is a safety feature that I am not going to get much of a bonus out of.”

But, he continues, “if I was having a side impact issue, I would look into it.”

Reversed Is Not Backward

A trend among hard hat users in general industry is to wear their hats backward. Often, the reasons for doing so appear to be legitimate, such as working more comfortably in close quarters or during welding operations, when a worker needs to turn his hard hat because welding mask will not fit over the bill of the helmet.

Too often, it is style that dictates how a worker wears his gear, according to Lloyd.

He explains that Bullard recently completed a survey asking general industry workers what they found most important about a hard hat. Lloyd says he expected the first two answers – safety and comfort – but was surprised to hear that the third-most important element for general industry workers was style.

“Style was more important for workers than availability and price, which was a very surprising survey result,” Lloyd admits.

Manufacturers, though, have tapped into that trend and are designing products featuring suspensions that allow the hard hat to be reversed yet still provide the same level of protection to the worker. This is done by making sure the suspension is oriented normally to the wearer’s head (i.e., with the brow pad against the forehead and the extended nape strap at the base of the skull). This way, only the shell of the helmet is backward on the head.

However, Webb says there is a distinct difference between “backwards and reversed.”

“A truly backwards hat is when the worker just turns it around and puts it on the head,” Webb explains. “In order to reverse the hard hat, you have to turn around the suspension in order to maintain the integrity of the product.”

Cross says he is in awe of how much hard hats have evolved over the years.

“They may look the same, but if you took a 1975 hard hat and a 2005 hard hat and compare their strength and abilities together, they are totally different hats,” Cross observes, and he doesn’t think the product has stopped evolving.

“Although they are much better, I do expect to see more of an evolution,” Cross adds.

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