Back to Blog

Safety Helmets Are Replacing Hard Hats on Construction Sites

By Bruce Rolfsen

For 40-plus years the design of construction hard hats hasn’t changed much—a brimmed shell attached to a suspended, adjustable headband.

But that’s changing as designs, first used in mountain climbing and other sports helmets, are adapted for construction workers.

The introduction of the helmets—don’t call them hard hats—is driven by the belief that helmets provide better side impact protection than traditional hard hats and won’t tumble away if a worker falls, company safety officials told Bloomberg BNA.

“If you’re working on a ladder and fall, your head snaps backwards, your hard hat falls off,” Jason Timmerman, safety director for Skanska USA Commercial Development, said. Bureau of Labor Statistics said brain injuries led to the deaths of at least 992 construction workers from 2011 through 2015, although it isn’t clear how many of the fatalities started with a fall.

Bill Drexel, safety director for subcontractor Scaffold Resource in Lanham, Md., recalled workers so concerned their hard hats wouldn’t stay in place that they created their own chin straps to hold hard hats in place in case they fell.

While general contractor employees are predominately using the new helmets, safety managers said that eventually lead contractors or project owners could require subcontractors to use the new helmets or find an equivalent.

Looking for Improvements

The search for new designs and helmets began three to four years ago when the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) announced it was beginning a review of construction hard hats to quantify head and neck protection and recommend improvements.

That research received funding from Turner Construction, worker’s compensation insurers and hard hat manufacturers. A NIOSH spokesman told Bloomberg BNA that the research is continuing and the agency wasn’t ready to release its findings.

About the same time, a few large general contractors began looking for alternatives.

Jesse Rice, vice president in charge of safety for the Clark Construction Group LLC headquartered in Bethesda, Md., said that part of the company’s 2015 business plan was to evaluate hard hats equipped with chin straps. The search led to using a helmet manufactured by an Italian company, KASK spa, Rice said.

KASK is better known for its helmets designed for skiing, horse riding and bicycling.

The company’s Zenith helmet meets the safety requirements of the consensus standard for construction headwear (ANSI Z89.1) and is approved for work in locations where electrical shock is a potential hazard, Rice said.

Skanska also decided to evaluate the Zenith helmet, with about 30 employees participating in a field test.

“We got rave reviews,” Timmerman said of the staff’s reaction.

In January 2017, Skanska began a pilot program with about 350 employees wearing helmets. The number of participants in the mid-Atlantic region continues to grow, however the company still views the effort as a pilot program, Timmerman said.

One benefit of the helmet is the optional, retractable visor, which satisfies OSHA requirements for eye protection and alleviates the need for safety glasses, Timmerman said.

Balfour Beatty US’s mid-Atlantic region began issuing helmets to about 80 craft workers in the spring, the contractor’s director for safety and health, Mike Saunders said. Because the craft workers don’t regularly work in areas with electrical shock hazards, they wear a helmet with vents, the KASK SuperPlasma, that isn’t ANSI-rated for electrical protection.

In early 2016, Scaffold Resource began offering SuperPlasma helmets to employees after a friend in the tree-care business recommended the KASK helmets his firm used, Drexel said. Now, about 100 employees wear the helmets.

Because the purpose of the new helmet is to protect workers from falls, Scaffold Resource requires employees to wear the helmet only when they are exposed to potential falls. If the immediate task is on the ground, such as unloading scaffolding, workers can go back to hard hats, Drexel said.

Subcontractor Mandate?

How far adopting helmets will go depends on several factors, the biggest being expectations from the general contractors who hire subcontractors, and helmet purchase costs.

Clark’s Rice said the company isn’t yet ready to require subcontractors to change helmets. Some subcontractors are moving toward using helmets on their own, because they see general contractor employees wearing helmets.

Another option for Clark is to set a requirement that hard hats or helmets be secured with a chin strap, Rice said. In one form or another, change is coming.

“I feel, the industry is going to evolve very quickly,” Rice said.

There have been similar changes in gear requirements. In August 2013, Clark began requiring its workers to wear cut-resistant gloves at building sites, even where cutting and sawing wasn’t going on. Some workers didn’t understand the glove policy, he said, but it was accepted as people saw the gloves didn’t interfere with their jobs.

In 2014, the glove mandate was extended to subcontractors.

“Now, it’s just a given,” Rice said.

Adoption Roadblocks

However, safety comes with a price, and helmet purchase costs could be an issue for small builders and subcontractors.

For head protection, an OSHA rule (29 C.F.R. 1926.100) requires employers to provide head protection equipment that meets or exceeds the industry consensus standard ANSI Z89.1 issued 2009. The agency also requires employers to provide safety equipment free to workers.

Hard hats meeting the consensus standard can be bought for less than $20 each.

Advertised prices for most helmets meeting the standard start at around $110, depending on the specific model. Adding a flip-up visor could be an additional $50. Bulk discounts would reduce costs, but competition also has the potential to lower costs. Kask and the French-based Petzl are among the few companies offering helmets meeting the ANSI Z89.1 requirements.

U.S.-based ANSI Z98.1 hard hat manufacturers offer chin straps that can be attached to their products.

Deborah Puracchio, communications manager for the Kentucky-based safety gear manufacturer Bullard, said the company wouldn’t discuss if its considering offering a helmet similar to the Kask and Petzl models because the firm doesn’t discuss its future products.

The company, earning its first hard hat patent in 1919, continues to look at innovations, Puracchio told Bloomberg BNA. Recently Bullard introduced a hard hat, the AboveView, featuring a clear front brim allowing workers to see what is above them without turning their heads.

Scaffold Resource’s Drexel said the new helmets his company uses will pay for themselves by preventing costly injuries.

“We haven’t had a head injury since we switched to them,” Drexel said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.