Canadian Contractor

John Bleasby   

The evolution of head protection, from construction hard hat to safety helmet

Canadian Contractor

Head trauma concerns spawn new designs and materials

Traditional construction hard hats have a simple flaw. While they may protect workers from a blow from above, they will likely fall off the worker’s head in the course of a fall from height, leaving the head unprotected. In fact, a report from the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) found that, “more than 2,200 workers died of a traumatic brain injury from 2003 to 2010. More than half of fatal work-related traumatic injuries were a result of falls – particularly from roofs, ladders and scaffolds.”

Safety helmets, like the KASK’s Zenith Safety Helmet (US $140 on Amazon) are being tested on construction sites across the USA

The next big thing in construction helmets
Hard hats are a staple of any site worker’s safety kit, along with a safety vest, steel-toed boots and gloves. They have proven to reduce serious injury, thus reducing lost hours from work, not to mention the longer term implications from head injuries. Yet, in the search for improved worker protection, some large U.S, construction companies are now site-testing safety helmets versus the traditional hard hat, particularly among those who work at heights. You’ve seen these helmets on the heads of mountain climbers and search-and-rescue workers — the big feature is the chin strap which keeps the helmet in place in any position.

There are benefits beyond chin straps, however. In a recent article published in, Shane Hedmond writes, “Safety helmets boast some other major benefits, chief of which is the ability to functionally accessorize. For example, many of the helmets are Hi-Viz, are shaped to allow for over the ear hearing protection, and have multiple options for safety visors of various sizes.” Helmets like these are also well-ventilated, thus improving comfort and wear-ability.

Safety helmets are proving to be worth the cost, according to nationwide tests
Cost shouldn’t be a factor when it comes to head and neck safety. Nevertheless, the higher cost for safety helmets may give some contractors and workers reason to pause — Safety helmets can cost more than double the conventional plastic hard hat. Additional accessories can add to the price tag.


However, the reasons for giving safety helmets a closer look are compelling. Seth Randall, division safety director for American construction firm Clark Construction said in an article posted on the United Rentals website, “We’ve had a couple incidents that kind of had us open our eyes and say, ‘There has to be something better.’” His company currently uses 3,500 safety helmets on jobs across the country. “We’ve already seen positive results in a couple of incidents that have occurred where the helmets have potentially saved an employee from any type of head trauma.”

Metal combat helmets from WWI inspired the traditional hard hat of today

Head protection’s humble and simple beginnings
This isn’t to say traditional hard hats haven’t evolved over time. In fact, head protection designs and materials have come a long way over the past century from very humble beginnings. “In the early years of the shipbuilding industry, workers covered their hats with pitch (tar), and set them in the sun to cure, a common practice for dock workers in constant danger of being hit on the head by objects dropped from ship decks,” according to Wikipedia.

In the years prior to WWI, Californian mining equipment manufacturer E.D. Bullard Company sold protective hats made of leather. The company founder’s son returned from the war with a steel military helmet, which inspired new and later patented ideas in head protection.  By the 1930’s, hard hats were mandated in the U.S. for workers on projects like the Hoover Dam and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Over time, materials evolved from steel to aluminum (except for electrical work), Bakelite plastic, and fibreglass. Most construction head gear today is made from tough, durable thermoplastics or high density polyethylene that evolved in the 1950’s. Colours are varied, and most models featuring adjustable headbands for an improved fit and interior padding that can be washed when sweaty.

The carbon fibre Skullgard Cap Hard Hat from Safety Works sells for $119.00 on Amazon

What is the cost of a good helmet design versus a head injury?
Today carbon fibre is finding its way into construction hats. Carbon fibre is light weight and extremely resilient to damage. However, these hats do cost more than polyethylene versions, often as much or more than the safety helmets now seen in tests across the U.S..

All said, the future may in fact belong to the safety helmet in construction. “Is there a cost? Sure, there’s a cost,” said Clark Construction’s Randall. “But there’s also a cost to an injury when someone does fall. When you consider those costs and the effect of a head injury on an employee, it justifies any additional cost to the helmet.”

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