Keeping an eye out for hazards that could lead to a blow to the head – and safeguarding against them – is vital in the workplace.

It’s also required: OSHA has standards focused on head protection: OSHA 1910.135(a) and 1926.100(a).

“It’s an absolute must in most hazardous environments,” said David Consider, senior workplace safety consultant at the National Safety Council, “the infamous ones being construction and mining.”

Deaths linked to traumatic brain injury more commonly occur in construction – NIOSH data shows that a quarter of all fatalities in the industry from 2003 to 2010 were the result of a TBI. But the risk for head injuries also is present in numerous other occupational sectors.

So, how can safety pros help protect workers?

Types of protection

“You can see some head injuries, such as cuts, burns and bruises,” says CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training. “But you cannot see a brain injury. These injuries happen when you are hit so hard that your brain bounces and twists inside your head.”

Head protection is available to help prevent external and internal injuries. ANSI/ISEA Z89.1, which had its most recent revision in 2019, is a consensus standard on head protection. OSHA most recently adopted the 2009 version of Z89.1 during its latest revision to the agency head protection rule, in 2012. Z89.1 rates head protection by type and class:

TYPE 1 reduces the force of impact only from blows to the top of the head.

TYPE 2 reduces the force of impact from blows to both the top and the sides of the head.

CLASS G reduces danger from exposure to low-voltage electrical conductors of up to 2,200 volts.

CLASS E reduces danger from exposure to high-voltage electrical conductors of up to 20,000 volts.

CLASS C doesn’t protect from electrical conductors.

Assess your organization’s need for head protection and what type is appropriate. “Look at your job hazards, first and foremost,” said Stacey Simmons, national account manager at Bullard and chair of the International Safety Equipment Association head protection product group overseeing standard updates.

Workers in food processing or auto repair, for example, should consider a bump cap, as they’re more likely to experience bumps and scrapes than blows to the head. “For those organizations that really want to be proactive,” Consider said, “if they’re looking at their incidents and they do see that they have a high frequency of minor head injuries or head bumps or lacerations, head protection and hard hats might not be required, but that might be your sign that maybe a bump cap would help alleviate some of that.”

Because bump caps don’t meet ANSI Type 1 or Type 2 head protection requirements for reducing the force of impact from blows to the top and the sides of the head, they’re not appropriate for construction projects or other more hazardous work.

Seth Randall, regional safety director at Clark Construction, stresses the prevalence of TBIs in construction.

“The idea of head protection is for falling objects, that’s what we have to get away from, right? Because when you’re on the roof, there’s nothing, really, that can fall from the sky besides rain, right? So it’s, ‘Oh, I don’t need head protection because there’s nothing falling from the top.’ But now it’s, ‘Well, what about you falling from the roof?’

“If you fall, yes, you want your fall protection, your personal arrest assistant to catch you, but what’s protecting your head? And so that’s ideally where we want to go. It’s not the choice of when to wear it, it’s a why to wear it type of thing.”

Fit and maintenance

Consider said improper fit is the top excuse for why workers don’t wear their head protection.

To ensure a hard hat fits correctly and is maintained, experts recommend you:

  • Adjust the head harness to leave a 1- to 1¼-inch gap between the hard shell and your head.
  • Make sure the hard hat doesn’t fall off your head when you bend over.
  • Situate the hard hat with the bill facing forward.
  • Clean the hard hat with mild soap and water as needed.
  • Regularly inspect the hard hat for cracks, gouges 
or stress discolorations.

This last item is why hard hat stickers aren’t recommended – they can impede inspections, Consider said.

“When you do your inspection on your hard hat, like you do all your PPE, if there’s a crack, if there’s something that’s damaged, a sticker is going to cover that up and you’re not going to be able to see it.”

Similarly, wearing a hood, stocking cap or baseball cap under a hard hat interferes with the fit.

“Pretty much, those ball caps are going to be right up above your ears,” Consider said. “Well, if something falls on your head, what happens is that suspension and that ball cap now could actually slice off your ear or even damage your ear. It messes with the overall safety of that hard hat, what it’s been tested for.”

A 2009 revision to Z89.1 addressed wearing hard hats backward, also known as reverse donning. It states that only hard hats marked with a reverse donning symbol can be worn in such a manner, with the wearer reversing the hat’s suspension so the sizing mechanism is situated at the back of the head as the shell brim faces backward.

In a 2011 letter of interpretation, OSHA confirmed a 1992 agency position “allowing the use of hard hats worn with the bill to the rear, so long as the manufacturer certifies” that equipment testing meets Z89.1 requirements.

In addition, CPWR recommends wearing only hearing and eye protection designed for use with your specific head protection.

Lastly, it’s important to keep instruction manuals that accompany your head protection.

“That literature can really help you with your training programs,” Consider said. “It can help you just get some more information on what that PPE is, storage requirements, etc.”

In development

Technology continues to influence head protection manufacturers.

Simmons said movement is afoot on a Z89.1 revision to be published in 2024. One objective of the revision: address side impact and chin straps on helmets, an endeavor that involves research into a European safety standard for mountaineering-style construction helmets.

Why? Experts say mountaineering-style helmets were designed to meet European standards, but because no corresponding U.S. standards exist yet, a challenge to streamline the two has emerged.

“We don’t know what that would entail because we’re at the very beginning stages,” Simmons said. “Just knowing that there is a gap and hearing the end-user feedback, we understand as manufacturers that there is a need for something. So, we’ve got to define exactly what that is and make sure that we’re protecting the workers the way they need protection for the hazards on the jobsites they face.”

Proponents of helmets often tout their blend of comfort and functionality. The chin strap is intended to prevent helmets from falling from the wearer’s head on impact.

“Companies are actually changing and revising their head protection policies,” Consider said. “They’re moving away from that traditional hard hat, and they’re developing policies where safety helmets are required now.”

Said Randall: “If there’s an exposure to a fall, we want them to wear a helmet.”

Other emerging trends include shock absorbers that release air when head protection is impacted, as well as sensors. Consider advises employers to take stock of these developments and remain in contact with workers about which types of head protection they favor. Seeking worker feedback can help boost compliance, a key principle in organizational head protection policies.

“Every policy and program should be looked at and revised at least annually,” Consider said. “If an employer out there has not taken a look at their overarching PPE policy and program, it may be a good time right now to update that stuff, especially with all the latest and greatest technology out there. You could also save some money. Ultimately, what we’re here to do is choose that right head protection that’s going to prevent injuries and save lives.”

*Thanks to our friends at Safety & Health Magazine for some content in this article.

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