That About Covers It
The hard hat is an iconic symbol of construction, but over the past few years, there has been a push to transition the industry to the safety helmet. Advocates say the climbing-style head covering is safer and more comfortable for workers.
But the transition hasn’t always gone smoothly. It’s taken adoption by progressive, safety-oriented companies and major buy-in from workers—and even still, there are major obstacles to widespread acceptance.
The modern hard hat was created for miners and others doing dangerous work by Edward W. Bullard, a World War I veteran who remembered how the helmets he and his fellow soldiers wore in combat shielded them from harm. Bullard called his invention the “Hard Boiled Hat”; it was made of steamed canvas and leather and debuted in 1919.
Employers first mandated that workers wear hard hats during construction of Hoover Dam in the 1930s. E.D. Bullard Co. introduced its first hard hat made of thermoplastic in 1952, then transitioned to polyethylene in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) were created, the use of hard hats was first regulated as part of the head-protection standard and hard hat use grew. Today, protective headwear is a multibillion-dollar business.
One of the main objectives of protective headwear is to reduce traumatic brain injuries; according to OSHA, the construction industry has the greatest number of both fatal and nonfatal work-related traumatic brain injuries. But traditional hard hats can pose challenges for construction workers. Fit is a major issue, whether it’s poor or uncomfortable, with many older-style hard hats being one-size-fits-all. In addition, hard hats were originally designed to prevent injury to the top of the head, leaving the back, sides and front of the head unprotected, and they can fall off easily. Safety helmets offer more covering, a tighter, more personalized fit, and foam liner that protects the front, back and sides of the head from an impact, much like a bicycle helmet does.
“We recognized that the traditional hard hat was very effective at a top-down strike, but it didn’t do anything for front or rear or side impact,” says Richard Grant, director of occupational health and safety for Coakley & Williams Construction in Bethesda, Maryland. “And in the event of a fall hazard, the hard hat usually did not stay on the person. So, the hard hat would go one direction and the person would go with gravity. And in the event of a fall, it was useless to have a hard hat.”
Safety helmets are also vented to allow more air circulation, which helps workers stay comfortable and prevents overheating in warm weather. And, helmets make it easy to add on visors, face shields, lights, earmuffs and other features.
“It protects people to a higher level and people find them more comfortable,” Grant says. “With all the attachments and everything, they’re really more user-friendly than the older-style hard hat.”
DOING A BETTER JOB
Helmet adoption by the construction industry has been gradual but gained traction within the past few years. “One of our vendors introduced it to us around 2015,” says Jason Kibler, director of environmental, health and safety for Davis Construction in Rockville, Maryland. “I started wearing one of the Kask brand helmets in 2016. I found that it was just a more comfortable helmet on top of the added benefits of everything.”
Coakley & Williams transitioned from hard hats in mid-2020. “For us, it was just a recognition of the hazard of the risk,” Grant says. “It wasn’t any specific incident or any requirement from an owner. It was really just a recognition that this new technology is available, and our people are exposed, and we need to do a better job of managing that risk.”
Clark Construction Group, which is also based in Bethesda, announced that it would require all craft workers to wear safety helmets that meet certain standards and are equipped with a chin strap starting in August 2022. “Traditional hard hats are no longer the best option to protect the safety and wellbeing of the men and women on construction sites, and just about everybody knows that,” Kris Manning, Clark’s senior vice president of safety, said in a release announcing the change. “The time is now for us to evolve as an industry and expedite the adoption of safety helmets.”
For Allan Myers, based in Worchester, Pennsylvania, buy-in from workers took off after several accidents with traffic-control crews. “On one of the crews that we actually were testing the helmet on, one of our superintendents was hit by a vehicle that came into our pattern at a very high rate of speed on a highway,” says Chris Shertzer, Allan Myers’ health, safety and environmental director. “One of the comments that the EMTs made when they got on the scene is that if the helmet wasn’t on his head, he probably wouldn’t have survived the accident. Everything just went pretty quickly from there.”
Shertzer says that an early barrier to widespread safety helmet use was its appearance. “The initial thing for most folks was what it looked like,” he says. “That was the biggest obstacle for us to overcome, because, as a construction worker, there’s this stoic image of what that looks like. And once it became every day, we had less and less challenges. I don’t think anybody sees it as awkward or looking goofy anymore.”
For some general contractors, the adoption of the safety helmet has led subcontractors to make the transition as well. “We’re in the process of rewriting our safety program right now,” Grant says, “and we’re probably looking at mid-2024 to start requiring all our trade contractors to have a climbing-style helmet. But really, I think we’re seeing a lot of trade contractors already start to adopt it themselves without the push for us to mandate it on our projects.”
PAYING THE PRICE
While OSHA doesn’t currently have any standards on safety helmets, the agency is looking into requiring inspectors to wear them, beginning with a pilot program. NIOSH has also been conducting extensive research on safety helmets.
An additional barrier to adoption has been the high cost of safety helmets compared to hard hats, particularly for some newer, small contractors that might not have the safety resources that older, established contractors do. Joe Xavier, senior director of health and safety for ABC, acknowledges that there can be a “significant differential” in cost between a safety helmet and a hard hat, but notes that helmet costs are coming down. “Cost is a relative term,” Xavier says. “The difference is if you make the investment, you can bid on the contract, and if you don’t, then you have no chance of winning the bid.”
But Kibler says he has seen a change in pricing as the popularity of safety helmets takes off in the industry. “In the past there were very few vendors producing this product that met these standards,” he says. “And now recently, the market’s really blossomed with a lot of additional vendors offering comparable products, which has also in a positive way impacted the price structure. So, we’ve seen the prices come down as there’s more competition in the market.”
In addition, emphasizing safety can be a selling point for new talent. “Look at it from the perspective of the potential new hire who is choosing between a contractor that issues a $12 hard hat and a contractor that provides an $80 Milwaukee Tool helmet,” Xavier says. “Which contractor do you believe cares more about you? As more make the switch, contractors who still issue the $12 hard hat may have a difficult time attracting the talent they want.”