4 Questions to Better Understand Hard Hat Safety
The Importance of Hard Hat Safety
Hard hats have become a staple of the commercial construction industry and are used pretty widely in other areas as well. However, what do workers know about hard hats beyond, “I have to wear one?”
Often, by no fault of their own, not a lot. They come to work, (hopefully) given a hard hat, adjust it, and off they go. But is that enough? Training employees on the proper use and care of all PPE are not only a good idea, but it’s also a requirement in both the General Industry and Construction standards.
So, what do you need to know?
When do I need a hard hat?
The first thing to understand is when you need a hard hat. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. OSHA doesn’t give a comprehensive list of all trades, tasks, or jobs that require you to wear a hard hat. Instead, they mention that they are required for employees who are at risk of head injury from a falling object or who may come in contact with exposed electrical conductors. This is pretty vague and doesn’t take into account being struck by (or walking into) objects that aren’t falling. In order to truly determine if and when hard hats are needed, and to properly provide a workplace free of recognized hazards, a hazard assessment needs to be done. Without it, you are only guessing at your PPE.
Of course, you can opt for a 100% hard hat policy as many workplaces have done, but this doesn’t free you of the obligation to follow the hierarchy of controls. Remember, PPE is a last resort – after substitution/elimination, engineering controls, and administrative controls. To say, “It is likely something will fall on your head, so wear a hard hat,” is not a compliant solution and, frankly, you are failing your workforce who depend on you to keep them safe.
Review your work and procedures, see where you can eliminate or control these hazards, and then if you’d still like to account for the unpredictable, implement a 100% use requirement.
What Do I Need?
Hard hats are not one-size-fits-all solutions in either a literal or figurative sense. The literal sense is easy. Make sure the support carriage fits your head. Adjust it, regardless of the adjustment mechanism, so it fits snugly and will not easily fall off. If your work puts you in a position from which it is likely you will lose the hard hat, utilize a chin strap.
From the figurative angle, it’s important to understand that different hard hats serve different purposes. Many workers aren’t even aware that different classes exist for hard hats. For instance, a Class C hard hat offers no protection against electrical contact, Class G provides protection from low-voltage conductors, and Class E will provide protection up to 22,000 volts. There are also two Types – I and II. Type I protects from blows to the top of the head while Type II protects from the top and sides.
As of 2009, ANSI Z89.1 – the standard which is incorporated by reference into the OSHA regulations – also allowed for markings indicating whether hard hats could be worn in reverse, whether they were suitable for lower temperatures, and whether they meet the requirements for high visibility.
Simply grabbing any hard hat off the shelf without knowing what hazards you are likely to encounter and what hazards the hard hat protects against may provide your workforce with nothing more than a false sense of security.
Does the style matter?
As if all of the requirements weren’t enough, there’s personal preference and comfort to consider as well. Assuming that either one is fine for the work you are performing, some workers prefer full-brim hard hats to front-only. Some companies like to color-code. Some prefer one manufacturer’s product over another. None of these is wrong, as long as the selection is suitable for the hazards you expect to encounter.
What about helmets?
Hard hat safety has remained fairly static for quite some time, but in recent years there has been a new player that seems to be gaining some traction: the safety helmet. These helmets look more like the type of helmet a climber would use as opposed to your traditional construction hard hat. First and foremost, these helmets do meet the ANSI requirements, so that shouldn’t affect your decision one way or the other. What should affect it are the pros and cons.
From the pro side, safety helmets seem to offer better protection – top, sides, and back – than your regular hard hat. In addition to the liner which fits closely, helmets include a webbing that distributes impact evenly. They come with chin straps and have accessories available, such as eye protection - which meets applicable ANSI standards as well - that could eliminate the need to keep track of a separate pair of safety glasses.
The con, for the most part, is the price. Safety helmets are significantly more expensive than standard hard hats, but that could easily be offset by the extra protection your workforce gains.
While there is no right or wrong for comfort and personal preference, there is a right and wrong when it comes to hard hat functionality. Make sure that you begin your PPE selection process with a hazard assessment so that you are not leaving your employee protection up to chance.