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OSHA Now Prefers Safety Helmets over Hard Hats

Agency employees have made the switch and encourage others to follow their lead

Man injured in warehouse, hard hat falls off

To better protect its workers from head injuries, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced in a late-November press release that the agency is replacing traditional hard hats with more-modern safety helmets for agency employees.

“OSHA cares about worker health and safety, embraces the evolution of head protection, and will lead by example,” said an OSHA spokesperson. “We recommend employers adopt the use of more-modern safety helmets to better protect their workforce when the potential for head injuries exists.”

Hard Hats vs. Helmets

Traditional hard hat design, which dates back to the 1960s, shields the top of the worker’s head but offers little protection from side impacts.

“As scientific understanding of head injuries has advanced, new technologies have been integrated into modern safety helmets. Helmets provide superior protection to side impacts,” the OSHA spokesperson said.

According to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, in 2021 head injuries accounted for 5.8 percent of nonfatal occupational injuries involving days away from work. Of those head injuries, 46.9 percent were due to contact with an object or equipment, and 20.5 percent were due to slips, trips and falls. Hard hats lack chin straps, which means that if an employee trips or falls, the hat may come off, exposing the worker’s head and increasing the risk of injury.

“The addition of integrated chin straps will keep the helmet in place when workers aren’t upright, move quickly or experience a fall,” said the OSHA spokesperson.

Conventional hard hats also lack vents, trapping heat inside.

OSHA published a Safety and Health Information Bulletin titled “Head Protection: Safety Helmets in the Workplace” on its website. This Safety and Health Information Bulletin (SHIB) describes the differences between contemporary safety helmets and conventional hard hats. It also explains improvements in design, materials and protective features that contribute to the worker’s total head protection:

  • Face shields or goggles to protect against projectiles, dust and chemical splashes.
  • Built-in hearing protection.
  • Communication systems to enable clear communication in noisy environments.

Safety Helmets for All?

In its press release, OSHA encourages the use of safety helmets by everyone “working at construction industry sites and oil and gas industry sites; in high-temperature, specialized work and low-risk environments; performing tasks involving electrical work and working from heights; and when required by regulations or industry standards.”

The National Safety Council’s data indicates that head injuries have some of the highest medical costs. The average settlement for these injuries is $93,942, which includes an estimated $60,000 in medical expenses and $30,000 in other financial losses.

“The direct and indirect costs of head injuries on the job can be devastating to the individual injured but also to the employer and the company,” said the OSHA spokesperson. “The cost of outfitting an entire organization is minimal to the cost and pain of one head injury.”

Specifications for Protective Headgear

Hard hats and safety helmets must meet specific standards set by the American National Standard for Industrial Head Protection. Two OSHA standards detail protective headwear’s specifications.

  • OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.135 (General Industry) states, “The employer shall ensure that each affected employee wears a protective helmet when working in areas where there is a potential for injury to the head from falling objects and ensure that a protective helmet designed to reduce electrical shock hazard is worn by each such affected employee when near exposed electrical conductors which could contact the head.” The standard requires that they comply with ANSI/ISEA Z89.1 – American National Standard for Industrial Head Protection. 
  • OSHA standard 29 CFR 1926.100 (Construction) states, “Employees working in areas where there is a possible danger of head injury from impact, or from falling or flying objects, or from electrical shock and burns, shall be protected by protective helmets.” The standard requires they comply with ANSI Z89.1-2009 -American National Standard for Industrial Head Protection. 

A conventional hard hat or modern safety helmet is only effective when it is in good working order and replaced as needed.

“Each manufacturer provides good information for their specific product. You should refer to their literature for specific guidance,” the OSHA spokesperson said. “In general, whenever the integrity of the helmet becomes compromised, it should be replaced. Visual cracks, deterioration or if the helmet was involved in a significant impact are clear indicators.”

The SHIB also provides instructions for properly inspecting and storing head protection, whether a safety helmet or a traditional hard hat.  

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer based in upstate New York.


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