Hard hats are one of the most important safety items today’s industrial workers can wear. Mandated by OSHA to be worn on a variety of work sites, they help protect the head from a wide range of hazards. These include flying objects, collision impact, falling debris, electrical shock, and more. Every day, they save lives and prevent injuries on the job.
Also known as construction safety helmets, hard hats are not new. In fact, modern hard hats are simply updated versions of ancient battle helmets that have been in use for close to 4,000 years. One of the earliest helmets was unearthed near the ancient Greek city of Mycenae. Scholars date it at around 1700 BC, which was near the end of the Bronze Age. This early helmet was not made of metal. Instead, it consisted of pieces of ivory made from the tusks of a boar. The tusk pieces were attached to a leather cap with felt padding on the inside. It didn’t afford the protection of a metal helmet. But during battle any protection is better than none.
Metal helmets were first introduced sometime during the early Bronze Age (3,000 to 2,100 BC). Scholars have not been able to determine a precise date for their invention. The earliest helmets were made of bronze. Over time, people began using harder metals, such as steel, to afford more protection. Over the centuries, many different types of helmets were invented. They all had one main purpose – to protect the head during battle.
From War to the Work Site
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it became necessary to protect the head on the job. The first construction safety helmets were developed by workers, not employers. Dock workers, who often got injured from objects falling off ships, were among the first to create their own helmets. They did this by smearing their soft hats with tar and letting them dry in the sun. These home-made helmets protected against some but not all injuries.
From there, home-made helmets began spreading to other industries. This led to the introduction of the first commercial hard hat in 1919. It was developed by Bullard, a small company that supplied equipment to mining companies in the western U.S. Using his doughboy helmet from World War I as a model, Edward Dickinson Bullard designed a protective helmet for miners. Soon after, the U.S. Navy commissioned Bullard to design and build a safety helmet for their shipyard workers.
In the 1930s, two massive construction projects – the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam – brought safety helmets into the mainstream. Both projects involved large numbers of workers. Both required working in high-risk environments. The lead engineer for the Golden Gate Bridge asked Bullard to adapt his miner hat to protect bridge workers. Bullard complied, and the bridge project became the first designated hard hat area. Bullard also created a special hard hat for workers that did sandblasting. It covered the face while allowing workers to see through a window. It also provided air from a compressor for breathing.
Building Hoover Dam required drilling rock on steep cliffs – a difficult and risky job. Many of these workers died from being hit by falling rocks. To protect themselves, workers began making their own hard hats. They coated cloth hats with coal tar and called them “hard-boiled” hats. These home-made helmets turned out to be very effective. In many instances, they saved the lives of men who would otherwise have been killed.
Stronger, Lighter Hard Hats
As time passed, manufacturers began using new materials to make hard hats stronger and easier to wear. In the late ‘30s, hats made with aluminum and plastic were introduced. These were light yet strong enough to withstand sudden impacts. Aluminum hard hats were not allowed to be used for jobs involving electricity. The “shock guard” helmet was invented to protect workers against electric shocks up to 10,000 volts.
Fiberglass hard hats were common during the 1940’s. In the ‘50s, thermoplastic became the leading hard hat material. It was easy to mold and shape using heat. Hard hats made with these materials cost less to make. The first polycarbonate hard hat rolled out in 1961. These days, most hard hats are made from high-density polyethylene or advanced engineering resins.
Depending on the job, modern hard hats can have different features. These include face shields, earmuffs, mirrors, headlamps, radios, pagers and cameras. Some have a rolled edge that drains rainwater off the front of the hat. This prevents the water from rolling down the back of the worker’s neck.
OSHA Hard Hat Regulations
OSHA began issuing hard hat guidelines during the 1970’s. In general, workers are required to wear protective headgear in any work environment where burns, electrical injuries, falling or flying objects, and irregular or moving surfaces could cause an injury. However, specific guidelines can vary by industry. OSHA doesn’t require all workers to wear hard hats.
Hard hats are designed to resist penetration and absorb the shock of a blow. To achieve these goals, hard hats are made with two parts – the shell and the suspension. Both must be in good working condition to properly protect the head. The shell must be hard enough to resist an impact. The suspension uses a shock-absorbing headband liner and crown strap to keep the shell away from the worker’s head.
Hard hats come in many different classes. All of them defend against penetration by falling objects and the shock of blows to the head. Two classes are customized to protect against electrical shocks. Class G helmets protect against low-voltage shocks, up to 2200 volts. Class E helmets protect against high-voltage electricity, up to 20,000 volts. Both are designed to absorb the shock of blows to the head like other hard hats.
Hard Hat Colors
Hard hat color codes make it possible to identify the type of worker or manager at a glance. Each color represents a certain type of job or position.
– White: Denotes a supervisor, manager, engineer or foreman.
– Green: Usually worn by safety officers or inspectors; sometimes by new workers.
– Yellow: Worn by heavy machinery operators and general construction laborers.
– Brown: These workers perform welding or other high-heat jobs.
– Orange: The main color for road construction workers.
– Red: Firefighters and other workers with emergency training wear red hats.
– Grey: Reserved for visitors to the job site.
– Blue: Mostly worn by electricians and carpenters; sometimes by technical advisors.
– Pink: Popular with women workers; often issued to males who forget to bring their hard hat to work.
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