Will Helmets Replace Hard Hats?

By Trent Cotney

Is replacing hard hats with helmets the wave of the future?

When you see a hard hat, you likely think of construction. On a typical construction site, most people wear them, and they also appear as icons on signs and brochures. This headgear is standard and has become a well-known symbol of the industry. However, some contractors have recently replaced hard hats with helmets, touting better protection. Will that be the wave of the future?

The history of hard hats

The idea for the hard hat began during World War I. Edward W. Bullard, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, saw how effective helmets were in shielding soldiers’ heads. After the war, he returned home and developed a hard-boiled hat, which was made from leather and canvas. He produced it through E.D. Bullard Co., the family business, and marketed it to miners. At first, miners and other workers wore the headgear by choice, but during the 1931 construction of the Boulder Dam (now called the Hoover Dam), wearing hard hats became required. As the years went by, Bullard saw more need for protective equipment. In 1952, the company introduced a hard hat made of thermoplastic, then transitioned to using polyethylene in the 1960s. 

A need for innovation

Today’s hard hats are made of plastic, having evolved very little over the decades. Most are Type I safety compliant, meaning they can protect workers when falling objects land squarely on their heads. However, there is heightened concern about traumatic brain injury (TBI) in construction, as well as in athletics. (Mild traumatic brain injuries are also known as concussions.) Therefore, some contractors have begun outfitting their workers with helmets instead of hard hats. Well-designed helmets can be Type II compliant, meaning they are also padded to protect wearers from side impact. Such helmets provide added safety when workers trip, slip and fall.

Helmets that offer protection on the sides and fronts of wearers’ heads can help prevent TBIs resulting from a fall. Those present on a construction site can suffer from head injuries after falling or slipping from six feet or less, so wearing helmets can benefit anyone, no matter what their roles are on the site. In addition, Type II safety helmets can help prevent concussions that result from lateral head impacts.

Understanding the risks

According to a report from NIOSH, construction leads all U.S. industries in the number of nonfatal and fatal work-related TBIs. In fact, from 2003 to 2010, more than 2,200 construction workers died from these head injuries.

As we all know, construction workers are at high risk of suffering from TBIs. Their work environment makes them prone to falling from high elevations or being struck by flying or falling objects. Older workers and workers at small companies seem to be most susceptible. In addition, roofers and iron and steel workers have the highest fatality rate among construction workers with TBIs.

Making the switch

Major contractors — such as Gray, Clark, and DPR — have made the change from traditional hard hats to more protective helmets. Initially, they saw some resistance from workers who were used to the old headgear. However, they believe that mandating helmets for their workers, subcontractors and trade partners has been the right decision.

As with any change, it may take time for workers to get used to helmets. After all, using personal protective equipment requires training and must become a habit before it is widely accepted. In addition, helmets are more expensive than traditional hard hats, so some contractors may be slow to purchase them. However, as more manufacturers produce Type II helmets, prices will likely go down.

Advice for contractors

Many contractors have observed that helmets can make all the difference in saving workers from serious industry. If you are considering a change from hard hats to helmets, be sure to have a plan in place. Make an effort to educate your workers about the benefits of helmets and allow them ample time to get used to the new headgear. Listen to their concerns, consider their feedback and answer any questions they have. 

The information contained in this article is for general educational information only. This information does not constitute legal advice, is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice for your specific factual pattern or situation.

Trent Cotney is a partner and Construction Practice Group Leader at the law firm of Adams and Reese LLP and RCAW General Counsel. For questions or to use your member benefit, please contact him at trent.cotney@arlaw.com or call 1.866.303.5868.

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