Here at Skill Builder we receive emails complaining that not all the builders in our pictures are wearing hard hats and high vis’. This is not because we don't believe builders should look after themselves, quite the opposite but we tend to reflect life as it is on site rather than air brushing and posturing. There are many occasions where a hard hat will save you from serious injury and even death but we also know that in some situations wearing a hard hat does nothing to increase health or safety.
For the sake of convenience we tend to group hard hats as a single entity but there is a great deal of difference between them.
Getting workers into the habit of wearing hard hats is a constant battle and it is little wonder. Sweating away in a heavy and uncomfortable hard hat with little or no ventilation is nobody's idea of fun and being required to do this while carrying out physically demanding tasks leads to resentment and a 'them and us' attitude between management and those (sometimes literally) at the coal face. In fact in some workplaces people will take any opportunity not to don protective headwear. On many building sites, there is a game of cat and mouse between the workers and those charged with site safety. It isn't just that many hard hats are uncomfortable to wear; it is also that they are often regarded as unnecessary in certain locations. A plasterer for example, working in a room where the heavy construction is finished might not see any reason for wearing his hat inside that room. In fact it might be a real hindrance. Often he will leave it by the door and pick it up as he goes out. This is also true of roofers who are working at the highest point of a building and are in no danger of having anything drop on their head. They will leave their hard hats hung on a scaffold pole and pick them up on their way down the ladder.
Moving around below scaffolding or a racking system is fraught with danger and most people would agree that a hard hat is an essential safety requirement in such locations but how much protection do they really offer? For the sake of convenience we tend to group hard hats as a single entity but there is a great deal of difference between them. Selecting the right protective head gear for the right location is not easy and the need to comply often overrides what would be a more common sense approach. The current system leaves many workers over protected while, more worryingly, others are under protected.
Benedict Ward, sales and marketing director of JSP who make a variety of hard hats in their Oxfordshire factory, suggests that sometimes there are issues surrounding people’s perception of the levels of protection offered by helmets and the actual levels of protection provided. "Helmets which comply to BS EN397 are more than adequate in many environments but there are environments in which workers are constantly looking up when they are likely to need better protection against side impacts," says Ward.
To understand this better we need to look at the three standards for safety helmets:
1. INDUSTRIAL BUMP CAP (MEETING BSEN812)
Bump caps are intended to provide protection to the wearer against the effects of striking their head against hard stationary objects with sufficient severity to cause superficial injuries. A corner of a kitchen wall unit is a case in point. No kitchen fitter is likely to wear an industrial safety helmet all day but they may well wear a bump cap.
2. INDUSTRIAL SAFETY HELMET (MEETING BSEN3957)
Industrial safety helmets are intended primarily to provide protection to the wearer against falling objects and are not intended to provide protection against off crown impacts. There are several models on the market which comply to this standard and make comfort and style as well as safety a priority. As well as a sweatband and flexible headband the new Reflex model from Centurion, for example provides increased neck protection and the added safety benefit of enabling the wearer to be seen in poor light. A mandatory requirement for this type of helmet also includes flame resistant properties. In addition the helmets may have shock absorption properties at very low temperatures and very high temperatures, have electrical insulation properties, have lateral deformation properties and provide protection against molten metal splash. BSEN3957 helmets are very commonly issued as the all round protection but industrial safety helmets (hard hats) of this sort are intended primarily to provide protection to the wearer against falling objects and are not intended to provide protection against off crown impacts such as a side swipe from a scaffold pole or digger bucket. There is a fallacy that these hats offer total protection against falling and fast moving objects where the reality is that so-called lightweight helmets offer diminishing protection outside of the ‘magic circle’ of 50mm radius of the crown. The picture shows a worker who was saved by his high performance helmet when struck on the front of the head. If he had worn a lightweight helmet to the above standard he would probably have been killed.
Hardhats also offer little or no protection against head injuries when falling, partly because they are likely to fly off on impact. In such situations the emphasis should be to guard against falling off in the first place rather than relying upon a helmet to soften the blow. If however a fall does occur the most beneficial feature might be an attachment systems such as chin straps.
3. THE HIGH PERFORMANCE INDUSTRIAL HELMET (MEETING BSEN14052)
The high performance industrial helmet offers greater protection from falling objects, protection from off crown impacts and protection from penetration by a flat blade striker. It also includes a retention system that meets mandatory requirements for system release and system effectiveness properties. The helmet has the same flame resistant properties as the industrial safety helmet and offers the same optional protection against other risks with the exception of lateral deformation. There is a need for much greater protection where there is a likelihood or risk of things falling down and there are many situations where an enhanced standard with side impact protection built into it is required. Apart from selecting the right helmet for the location and type of work there is also the problems of care and maintenance. For example how does sunlight affect the helmet? The AEARO Solaris helmet, which won the BSIF safety innovation award this year for its badge that signalled solar degradation, has brought a useful focus on the quality of helmets, how they are stored and whether they have a shelf life. There is much debate to be head on these subjects . Do people know the history of the helmet they are using? If it's had a previous impact it may be ineffective but in a situation where people just grab a helmet off a peg this may well be the case.
If we are to win the battle for hearts and minds then the humble hard hat needs to be appreciated for its benefits rather than being seen as an instrument of control by the nanny state. There are better hard hats out there with enhanced comfort features such as ventilation slots and sweat bands with quick adjustment harnesses but many workers aren’t even aware of them. Little wonder then that they find a hard hat a burden. Ironically the ‘posher’ type of hat is often the preserve of the occasional wearer such as an architect rather than the person who has to wear a hard hat all day. Next time you buy a hard hat these points are worth considering. You might then find that wearing one is not half as onerous as you once thought; in fact you might even begin to feel naked without one.
Whatever level of protection you chose it won’t make you Superman and the key to staying safe is to stay away from hazardous areas. If a brick is dropped from scaffolding (a fairly rare event these days with toe boards and netting) you can more or less tell where it is going to fall. Isaac Newton sorted all this out. If you don’t walk about below scaffolding you are very unlikely to have a brick on your head. Again it is what is in your head rather than what is on it that will keep you out of danger in the first place.