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Keep Your Head

Published: 28th Nov 2012 in OSA Magazine

Alwyn Mendonca guides us through occupational head protection, including the correct selection, use and maintenance of PPE.

Every year in the construction industry workers are killed and many others are injured as a result of head injuries. The head is a very delicate part of the human body and a single injury can handicap an employee for life, or it can be fatal. This should come as little surprise when you consider the delicate features of the head, such as the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and brain.

Those who survive major head injuries may face various health complications as the result of brain damage. The head is naturally protected from the risk of injury due to its elevated position on the human body; however, during certain circumstances in the workplace the head can be exposed to the potential risk of injuries.

According to the American Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) more than 100,000 occupational head injuries are reported every year. A BLS survey stated that 84 percent of workers who suffered impact injuries to the head were not wearing head protection and the majority of workers were injured while performing their normal jobs at their regular worksites. According to the report, in almost half of the accidents involving head injuries, the employees knew of no actions taken by their employers to prevent such injuries from recurring.

The prevention of head injuries is an important factor in every safety programme. It is essential to consider the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect the head, such as suitable hard hats or safety helmets. If you wear a safety helmet your chances of being seriously hurt are greatly reduced - it may even save your life.

One of the clear principles when determining control measures for virtually any risk activity is that PPE is a last resort, as it has a number of drawbacks. This means that wearing a safety helmet is always the last line of defence. Wherever possible, other measures should first be taken to reduce or control the risks, such as providing toe boards on the floor
edges to avoid material falling down, or ensuring suspended loads are tied securely.

Case studies

During my work with a major consultancy I was responsible for ensuring our contractor’s minimum health and safety compliance met with the local regulatory requirements. As part of this I had to identify the contractor’s non-conformities and ensure rectification.

One afternoon during the summer, I observed some workers transporting cold water in their hard hat shells. The suspensions had been removed from the hard hats to ease water collection. I asked one of them what they were doing and told them they were misusing their PPE - which was a violation.

I was met by the reply that no water facility had been provided at their dining area and they had to walk to the other side of the site after lunch under the hot sun just for hand washing. For that reason the workers said they were storing the water for hand washing so that they could get sufficient rest time.

On another site, some workers were lying down with their hard hats on in the safe areas of the work site. At that time there was no dedicated rest area available as it was still being prepared. I then noticed some modifications made on a few of the workers’ hard hats. During my enquiries, it was revealed that they had made holes in the hard hats for air circulation to provide cooling to the head during the hot summer. Since the contractor made it compulsory to use hard hats at the worksite, employees had no option other than to wear them even during their resting time.

Both above examples are the outcome of poor welfare facilities, a lack of monitoring made on the PPE use, and a lack of training and education provided to employees on the safe use and importance of personal protective equipment.

What are hard hats?

A hard hat consists of a rigid shell that resists and deflects blows to the head, while a suspension system inside the hat acts as a shock absorber. Some hats serve as an insulator against electrical shocks. A hard hat shields your scalp, face, neck, and shoulders against splashes, spills and drips. Some hard hats can be modified so you can add face shields, goggles, hoods or hearing protection to them to protect from other risks present in the workplace.

Hard hats are extremely versatile and can protect employees from a multitude of potential hazards. There are many different types of hard hats. Some hats are designed to protect only against bumps, such as from low overhead hazards, while others afford protection against falling objects. Metal hard hats should not be worn when there is a potential for contact with anything electrical.

What is your hazard?

The need for hard hats or safety helmets to be worn in a workplace, such as a construction site, should be established by a hazard assessment conducted by the person in control. Some hazards that may cause potential head injuries include:
1. Impacts to the head - Falling, flying or thrown objects, including road debris, are common causes of head injuries, as is falling or walking into hard, fixed objects. These injuries include scrapes, lacerations, neck sprains, concussions, skull fractures, and even fatalities. A suitably designed hard hat can protect the worker from impact hazards.
2. Electrical shocks - Accidents involving electricity result in electrical shocks and burns. A suitably designed hard hat can protect the worker from electrical shocks.
3. Splashes, spills and drips - Workplaces involving the use of hazardous chemicals may expose workers to potential splashes, spills and drips of toxic liquids such as acids, caustics and molten metals that can burn or irritate the skin, scalp and eyes. Wearing a suitably designed hard hat can protect the worker from chemical hazards.
4. Flammability and hair risks - Workplaces may involve running machinery and employers have a legal duty to ensure that workers cover and protect long hair, to prevent it from getting caught or drawn into machine parts, such as belts and chains.

International legislation

There are various international regulations and standards specifying the requirements of the provision and use of safety helmets. Some of the relevant regulations used across the world are the Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989 and the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2002, as well as British (BS), European (EN) and American (ANSI) standards. BS EN 397, for example, pertains to safety helmets in construction and performance, and BS EN 443 is used for safety helmets for fire fighters. In America the standard used to standardise the hard hat is ANSI Z 89.1. You should always check the label on your hat for compliance with the appropriate standards and always purchase a hard hat with a CE mark.

Regulatory exemptions

According to the Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989, a Sikh who is wearing a turban is exempt from any requirement to wear head protection while working on a site where construction work is undertaken. An exemption under the regulations for turban wearing Sikhs means that they do not need to wear head protection while on a construction site if they are wearing a turban. Therefore, the duties on employers and self employed persons in these regulations to provide head protection, and ensure that it is worn, do not apply in connection with the wearing of head protection by a turban wearing Sikh. No other workers are exempt from the regulations, including Sikh construction workers if they are not wearing their turbans.

Types and classes

Hard hats are divided into three industrial classes:
• Class A - These helmets are for general service. They provide good impact protection, penetration protection and electrical protection from low voltage conductors, normally up to 2,200 volts. They are used mainly in mining, building construction, shipbuilding, lumbering, and manufacturing
• Class B - Choose Class B helmets if your employees are engaged in electrical work. They protect against falling objects, impact and penetration hazards, and high voltage shock and burns usually up to 20,000 volts
• Class C - Designed for comfort, these lightweight helmets offer limited protection. They protect workers from bumping against fixed objects but do not guarantee protection against falling objects or electric shocks

Selecting suitable PPE

When no in-house competent health and safety advice is available, initially check with your supplier on what type of head protection is appropriate by explaining the job to them. If in doubt, you should seek further advice from a specialist.

Service life

The normal service life of a hard hat is considered to be five years from the date of manufacture - which can be found permanently marked on the inside surface of the hard hat shell. Safety headwear will deteriorate with time from exposure to sunlight and other chemicals.

Storage, inspection and maintenance

Hard hats must be properly looked after and when not in use should be stored in a dry, clean cupboard or a similar storage. PPE must be cleaned and kept in good condition by carrying out regular visual checks for damage by the persons responsible. Consider following these additional points regarding the storage of hard hats:
• Use replacement parts which match the original, such as when replacing suspensions
• Keep replacement hard hats available, e.g. additional storage of hard hats in the required number for emergency use or for the use of visitors to a hard hat zone
• Clearly identify who is responsible for maintenance and how it is to be done

Always read the manufacturer’s recommendations for the maintenance of the hard hats. Some of the do’s and don’ts for hard hats are as below.

Outer shell do’s:

• Inspect headwear before each use for any visible signs of damage that might reduce the degree of safety provided by the manufacturer. Where damage or defects are detected, the hard hat should be checked by a competent person, and if advised, should be discarded and replaced with a new unit
• Replace the hard hat when hairline cracks start to appear
• Replace any hard hat that has been struck by a forceful object, even if no damage is obvious
• Remove and destroy any hard hat if its protective abilities are in doubt

Outer shell don’ts:

• Do not drill holes in, alter or modify the shell. Alterations may reduce the protection provided by the hard hat
• Do not use paint, solvents, gasoline, chemicals, or harsh cleaning materials on the shell. These can make plastic headwear brittle, more susceptible to cracks and reduce protection by physically weakening it or negating electrical resistance. Paint can also hide cracks that may develop
• Do not use metal labels on hard hats specified for electrical shock protection
• Do not wear the hard hat backwards. The peak should always face forward
• Do not attach any product to a hard hat, such as a face shield, unless specified by the manufacturer

Suspension do’s:

• Inspect the suspension before every use. Its lifespan is affected by normal use, heat, chemicals and ultraviolet rays. Where damage or defects are detected, the suspension should be discarded and replaced with a new unit. Hard hat suspensions will deteriorate with time from exposure to sunlight and other chemicals. The normal service life of the suspension is considered to be one year of regular use. Where use is intermittent, the suspension may last longer

• Look closely for cracked, torn or frayed suspension material or adjustment slots
• Check the suspension lugs carefully, as long periods of normal use can damage the suspension. Replace the suspension if it has torn or broken threads
• Adjust the headband size so that headwear will stay on when the wearer is bending down, but is not so tight that it leaves a mark on the forehead
• Ensure that the suspension is in good condition as the main purpose of the suspension is to absorb energy

Suspension don’ts:

• Do not put anything between the suspension and the shell as there must be clearance inside the headwear while it is being worn. In the case of a blow to the head, that space helps to absorb the shock
• Do not mix different manufacturers’ suspension types and hard hats. Replacement suspension harnesses should be from the same manufacturer and for the same model of hard hat


Employers have duties concerning the provision and use of PPE at work. The employer must assess the workplace to determine if hazards are present that require the use of hard hats or other head protection. If such hazards are present, you must establish a complete safety protection programme including selection, fit testing, training, maintenance, and inspection. Employees must make proper use of hard hats provided and report any losses, destructions or faults in the PPE.


Employers must train their staff who are required to wear hard hats on how to do the following:
• How to use hard hats properly
• To be aware of when hard hats are necessary
• To know what kind of hard hats are necessary
• To understand the limitations of hard hats in protecting employees from injury
• How to don (put on), adjust, wear, and doff (remove) hard hats
• How to maintain hard hats properly, including how to identify signs of wear, such as deformed, cracked or perforated brims, flaking or chalking shells, or a loss of surface gloss. Employees should also be able to identify cracked, torn, frayed, or otherwise deteriorated suspension systems
• How to clean hard hats - in antibacterial soap and hot water

Encouraging compliance

Use the guidelines below to encourage your workers to wear their head protection:
• Involve the user in the selection of appropriate head protection, considering the style, size and fit of the hard hat. If the users help to choose it, they will be more likely to use it
• Instruct and train people how to use their PPE. Tell them why it is needed, when to use it and what its limitations are
• Identify hard hat zones instead of forcing employees to use hard hats all the time at the work site. Display safety signage at the entrances and boundaries of the hard hat zones which can be a useful reminder that hard hats should be worn
• Include a hard hat campaign week, hard hat slogan competitions and a special award for the best hard hat user in the company’s health and safety promotional programme
• Show management commitment - never allow exemptions from wearing hard hats for those jobs that ‘only take a few minutes’
• Provide adequate supervision to check head protection is worn when necessary

Best practise

Some of the best practises could be followed at construction sites or other workplaces to avoid head injuries.

Prevent objects falling:

• Not storing materials at height or at the edge of excavations
• Provide toe boards and brick guards or other suitable vertical protection on scaffolds
• Provide fully boarded work platforms and protections around or over openings in floors
• Safe slinging of materials using nets or palletised loads

Avoid being struck by falling objects:
• Keep people out of areas where materials are being, or are likely to be dropped
• Provide debris chutes and sheeting of the skips they feed into
• Provide tunnels or canopies over access ways

Avoid striking the head against something, by:

• Protecting the ends of scaffold poles
• Capping projections from structures, e.g. studs for use in fixing suspended ceilings
• Hooking the sling of a crane
• Providing sufficient headroom on scaffolding
• Promoting good housekeeping to prevent slipping or tripping accidents

Encourage employees

Finally, head protection by means of hard hats should not be considered a complete protection for various reasons, as it is difficult to ensure that all workers will always wear the necessary head protection. During a major incident head protection does not prevent head injury; it only reduces its severity - but if that means the difference between life and death, then employers must continue to strive towards total PPE compliance.

1. Personal Protective equipment at work Regulations 2002
2. Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989
3. Websites of various hard hat manufacturers
4. www.hse.gov.uk

Published: 28th Nov 2012 in OSA Magazine


Alwyn Mendonca

Alwyn Mendonca is a practising health, safety and environment (HSE) professional in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He is a member of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) at graduate level, and has been in the field for 16 years.

From his civil engineering background, Mendonca’s career started in the construction industry and he moved to the facilities management industry 12 years later. Along with his engineering background, Mendonca has achieved NEBOSH’s renowned level 6 health and safety qualification and is an IRCA (International Register of Certified Auditors) accredited OHSAS 18001 lead auditor. By acquiring food safety qualifications, Mendonca also provides competent advice in the food and hygiene industries.

Mendonca has prepared extensive training material for the companies that he has worked for. His experience includes: managing HSE issues in the field of construction and facilities management; HSE policies and procedure making; carrying out risk assessments and creating safe work methods; HSE inspections and audits; working at height and fall protection; road safety management; management of hazardous substances in the workplace; first aid, fire and emergency management; employee training and motivation; employee occupational health; food safety and kitchen health and safety; noise assessment and control; pest control and many more.

Mendonca has carried out NEBOSH IGC and other health and safety training in the UAE and India and has been selected as a member of the UAE Ministry of Labour’s focus group to review existing industrial safety regulations.

Alwyn Mendonca




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