Head Protection: Don't Abuse the System

July 23, 2002
Hard hats protect the body's most important organ. So why do they get so little respect?

Despite their status as the brain's bodyguard, hard hats suffer a lot of abuse. What other type of personal protection is regularly dropped, sat on or left to bake in the back of a truck? What other type of head gear, for that matter, is left so dirty that, as North Safety Product's Bill Newcomb observes, "You take a look at it and you think, 'I wouldn't want to put that on my head. I wouldn't even want to use it to scoop dirt in the back yard.'"

One reason hard hats receive so little attention, says Newcomb, North Safety's director of regulatory affairs and product development, is that they frequently are treated as a commodity, purchased mainly with price in mind and not their role as a head protection system that could potentially save a worker's life.

The industrial hard hat, however, is a system that must be in good condition to do its job. The most obvious part of the system is the helmet's shell, most frequently made of polyethylene these days, but also manufactured from polycarbonate, fiberglass or other materials. This shell provides a barrier against impacts and is rounded to mainly protect the crown of the head.

The second major component of the system is the suspension. While it gets less attention than the shell, notes Jim Byrnes, product line manager for head protection at MSA, "In most cases, the suspension does about 85 percent of the work." The plastic suspension is designed to stretch and absorb the shock of a blow.

"Most people look at the shell and they never look at the suspension because they assume that the shell is a hard piece of plastic and that it is what is protecting them," he says. In reality, the shell and the suspension work together, and both are necessary if the hard hat is to offer all the protection it was designed to provide.

Hard hat manufacturers recommend that employees inspect their helmets daily for signs of wear or damage. Bullard, for example, says the shell should be inspected for "dents, cracks, nicks, gouges and any damage due to impact, penetration, abrasions, rough treatment or wear that might reduce the degree of protection originally provided."

Hard hats are susceptible to deterioration over time from exposure to sunlight, heat and chemicals. The shiny surface of a new hard hat becomes dull, chalky or starts to flake.

Suspensions also age and may begin to crack, tear or fray. Newcomb says hair oils and other materials in the environment can begin to affect the elasticity and strength of the suspension. MSA's Byrnes says his company recommends replacing the suspension every 12 months to keep the head protection in good working order.

Any hard hat that shows signs of worn or damaged parts, Bullard warns, "should be removed from service immediately and replaced."

For routine maintenance, Bullard recommends scrubbing the shell and suspension with a mild detergent and rinsing with warm water. Kristin Bacon, Bullard's product manager for head protection, said hard hats should be replaced every two to five years.

Wearing Hard Hats Correctly

To provide the intended level of protection, industrial hard hats must be worn according to the manufacturers' directions. Normally, the brim of the hard hat should be facing forward. Users can wear hard hats backward as long as the product is designed for such use and the wearer makes sure to turn the suspension so that the nape strap remains on the nape of the neck. The hard hat suspension should be adjusted so it fits comfortably on the top of the head, and should never be tilted back on the head.

North Safety's Newcomb warns that baseball caps, skull caps and other items should not be worn under the helmet. Such items could reduce the space between the head and the shell, thus limiting the protection afforded by the helmet. Moreover, many caps have buttons, eyelets and other items that could harm the worker if an impact occurs.

Hard hat manufacturers also warn that self-adhesive stickers should be placed at least 1/2 inch above the brim, and should not be placed where they will cover any cracks or other damage to the helmet.

What's New

There is a continuing trend toward personalizing and decorating hard hats with company logos, safety slogans and other messages. Moreover, manufacturers are offering such decorative schemes as NASCAR logos, flags and NFL team colors.

"There is a huge awareness now of worker visibility," notes Bullard's Bacon. High-visibility helmets in three fluorescent colors - orange, yellow and green - with striping up to 500 candlepower are available. "What you want is to get the worker in a color that has the best contrast to their work surroundings," Bacon says.

The more comfortable personal protective equipment is, the more likely it is to be worn. For hot weather, manufacturers offer hard hat models and accessories designed to keep workers cooler. MSA, for example, offers a Type I, Class C helmet with six cooling vents along the crown for improved air circulation (see photo at bottom of page 40). Replaceable brow pads made of a wicking material and sun shades for the neck are also available to keep workers cooler.

Sidebar: Standards Under Development

The ANSI head protection standard, Z89.1-1997, divides industrial helmets into two types: Type I, which are designed to protect workers from objects that fall from above, and Type II, which offer lateral impact protection as well. There are three classes of helmets: Class G, for general service; Class E, which provide protection against electrical shocks and burns; and Class C, which are conductive and not tested for electrical insulation.

ANSI Z89.1 is under review and expected to be reissued in 2003. Only minor changes are expected in the consensus standard. OSHA continues in its personal protective standard to require that head protection meet the requirements of ANSI's 1986 version of the standard.

The International Safety Equipment Association is serving as the secretariat for an international head protection standard, TC 94/SC 1, which was first issued in 1977. Jim Byrnes, chairman of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) committee, said the effort was spurred by the desire to develop "one-world standards" that would allow manufacturers and users to develop and purchase head protection products that meet the same performance specifications. Byrnes said it will likely be two to three years before the new ISO standard is issued.

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