Having the opportunity to travel overseas for a few years, I had the chance to look at the construction safety efforts there. I often came to the realization that the United States is woefully behind. This column is centered on hard hats and the need to better protect ourselves. Like job-built ladders, we should have moved past the hard hat decades ago.
In the United States, we require a helmet to stay on your head when riding a bike, playing football, driving motorcycles (in most states), playing hockey, or firefighting, yet every day we put sons and daughter at height and we ignore the additional protection a helmet provides in a fall.
The current helmets were really made for hot rivets your friend "Otto" would drop on your noggin. Your head would remain undamaged when you struck the underside of a beam or duct. The design is relatively unchanged since first produced (in leather) in 1898 by Bullard. Over 100 years later, Bullard is still producing helmets like mine above. I wear it to every fire call. It doesn't fall off my head because it's attached to it. In a fall, my head would hurt—but not as much.
Consider that fall prevention posters often show a worker falling to the ground. As he is trying to flap his arms to fly, the posters typically depict his hard hat flying off—not attached to his head. The only thing holding a conventional hard hat to your head is gravity. Think about this—these safety posters show the failure of personal protection equipment but do not comment on it.
The Numbers Matter
The construction industry has the greatest number of fatal and nonfatal traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) among US workplaces. Per the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, these deaths represent 25 percent of all construction fatalities. Granted, we need to look closely at head protection, but we need to examine fall prevention even closer. The following is why.
Males were 7 times more likely than females to die from a TBI.
Older workers (65 years and older) were almost 4 times more likely than younger workers (25–34 years) to have a fatal TBI.
Falls, especially from roofs, ladders, and scaffolds, led to more than 50 percent of fatal work-related TBIs.
Structural iron and steelworkers and roofers had the highest fatal TBI rate, and TBIs related to falls caused most of their deaths.
What's So Different about These Helmets?
Though used overseas for decades, over the last several years, contractors such as my company Exyte, Gilbane, Turner, and Skanska have been sporting these "safety helmets" that look more like a bicyclist helmet. MSA, 3M, Kask are making these available. Close-fitting, they have no real brim, but often sport a face shield like a hockey player's and a chin strap. And I love 'em.
They feel great. The inside is cushioned with foam, so it spreads the weight across your head. No heavier than a hard hat, with the rated face shield, you can wear your street glasses to work. You can get them ventilated or not. I wore a white nonventilated one in the Middle East, and heating was not a problem. But nothing is really cool there.
The new design offers side protection; a hard hat does not. That's critical to me. Having investigated several struck-by cases where someone took a shot to the side of the skull, the conventional helmet and plastic supports just provide an edge to lacerate you.
There is no brim, but based on my research, that was never built for safety but perhaps to keep the rain off your glasses. I often hear the brim was designed to keep the sun off your face or sparks from getting down the front of your shirt when looking up.
The biggest advantage to these new helmets is that they stay on your head when you fall. Whether a long fall or a short one, this added level of protection will only help. As a kid, we skated and skied for hours and about once a day fell backward on the ice or the slope. There was never time to put out your hands because bad things happen fast. Stunned for a bit (concussion), you usually quit for the day. One wonders about those repeat concussions and the long-term damage that it did to us. Now, skiers without helmets are called out for that failure, and yes, they have chin straps.
Some Tips and Considerations
I feel our reluctance to adopt these helmet types (worn for years overseas) has caused deaths that could have been avoided. Recently, I spoke with a summer intern for one of the largest insurers. His research is examining fall claims where the injured landed without his helmet. It was pretty horrifying.
General contractors are now mandating these safety helmets. The continued use of conventional hard hats, even though safer designs are recognized, is like the fact that most children cannot hear a conventional smoke alarm. (Really! Google it or see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6SUaNoAnI4.) Awareness is needed. Bringing the failures of our hard hats to light is critical because these new designs will prevent injuries. I suspect within 5 years the conventional hard hat will be like the job-built ladder—some contractors will use, most won't.
Over the next year or 2, you will see more of these safety helmets on our sites. The more progressive general contractors are mandating them on selected projects, and once the subcontractors are outfitted, these will become everyday wear.
Several manufacturers are selling these helmets, and although they are pricey, the price will drop over time, especially when purchased in bulk. They typically meet US safety standards, and I love mine for I can wear my regular glasses underneath the protective visor.
The helmets are designed to accommodate all kinds of accessories including headlamps, hearing protection, and face shields. Beware—with the helmet lamp you may not be able to flip up the visor because the lamp is in the way. As these are field-tested in the United States, expect changes. My glasses scratch up the inside of my visor. One of the new helmets from another vendor has a different design that eliminates that rubbing.
Care will be needed if you start handing out the visor units. You can no longer just toss these in your truck at the end of the shift or the lens will surely scratch. I have been wearing mine for about 8 years. Gilbane had a vendor (Kask) make a presentation on the value of these helmets, and I have worn mine ever since.
As I walk construction projects, I garner some stares for certain, but I always approach the curious and ask what they think. Comments range from "I will retire before that happens!" to "Where can get one of those?" The generation that grew up wearing bike helmets is eager to use these hard hats. The reluctance right now is the cost ($80–$140) and the worker who already has a nice collection of hard hat stickers he or she does not want to give up.
To get a feel for acceptance, I joined an app called Trade Hounds. An interesting site, this is a group of pipe fitters (NEVER call them plumbers!), electricians, and carpenters who show off their work. They also reach out to other "Hounds" for advice and critiques of their work. It's both a rough and wonderful site. I posted a photo of my helmet, and here is what they think in the field.
When I first taught my son Andy to ride a bike, it was near a hill. He figured out the pedaling part quick but had no idea about braking. He hit the elm tree at the base of the hill dead on. He cut his face and lip, and that scared him away from bikes for a few months. The helmet he was wearing had a piece of bark wedged in it when we picked him up. Did it save his life? Perhaps, but it surely helped avoid a concussion.
It's critical to remember not everyone dies when they hit their head, but any concussion is a long-term brain injury. I am confident that we will reduce concussions and save some lives as we encourage these helmets on our sites. Although we may be several decades late to get these in the field—it's now time!
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