Flying the flag in the war against head injuries, Sarah Olivier explores the critical nature of head protection.

Head’ston Blumenthal

Many years ago, I was told about an eccentric safety mentor at a company who was determined to drum through the message to his fellow colleagues concerning the importance of head protection. The manner in which he achieved this feat conjured up thoughts of celebrity chef, Heston Blumental who too wished to leave a lasting impression on his clientele. Similarly, Heston practices the art of creating a multi-sensory experience in order to appeal to his followers in providing a full memorable, (in his case), culinary experience.

The Mentor would climb approximately eight metres high, positioned on scaffold and unleash a ripe watermelon, roughly the size of a human head. He would proceed to drop the watermelon from this height amongst the participants to demonstrate the damage on a human skull if one were to fall from this height without head protection.

This technique may be criticised as being zealous and somewhat ridiculous in that a human head cannot be compared to a melon (for most of us!). However, the message is visual and may have prompted just one of the attendees to think twice in the future about leaving a hard hat behind prior to working at heights.

In addition to the visual lesson imparted, it was rumoured that once prospective employees caught wind of this experiment, they would ensure a (mostly) clean sheet of plastic for the melon’s destination… this in order to eat the spoils that could be salvaged… this is Africa after all, and we are nothing if not resourceful!

The war against head injuries

As with many of our modern-day inventions, the origin of wearing head protection can be traced back to World War I. Designed to protect soldiers during battle against a host of hazards including projectiles such as bullets and shrapnel, these metal hard hats enabled thousands of soldiers to be reunited with their families following the end of the war in Europe.

One particularly observant soldier returned home to America following the war and considered the reason for not wearing head protection in industry, and with this, eventually came the birth of the hard hat.

It is interesting to note that prior to this event, many workers had come to their own realisation that some form of head protection was the way of the future in protecting themselves at work and resorted to painting caps and hats of all descriptions with tar and leaving them in the sun to harden. Fortunately, the arrival of the hard hat eventually made this practice redundant and workers in mines, construction and industry alike were afforded proper head protection.

“the mentor would drop the watermelon from height to demonstrate the damage on a human skull if one were to fall without head protection”

Brain food

So, what is behind this matter of head protection being such a critical component of personal protective equipment?

A biological element of being human is characterised by having a brain. Our brains are fundamental and essential in our existence. Common knowledge of which we all are aware however how often do we think about the magnitude of having a properly functioning brain and what it would mean for us as an individual, attempting to navigate life as we know it if we didn’t?

Our brains are the largest and most complex organ in our bodies. Think about the functions we perform on a constant basis without even giving it much thought. Our brains control our ability to think, talk, feel, see, hear, remember things, walk, and breathe and these functions are the bare basics. Imagine attempting to circumnavigate just one hour of our lives defunct of these abilities… impossible. These abilities are surely worth protecting and the prime reason that head protection is so critical as not only can it mean the difference between life and death but the difference between life and life as we have been accustomed to know it.

The brain is made up out of three main components: this trilogy is in command of the functions as indicated below.

The Cerebrum

The Cerebrum is the large, outer section of the brain. It controls reading, thinking, learning, speech, emotions, and planned muscle movements like walking. It also controls vision, hearing and other senses.

The Cerebellum

The Cerebellum is at the back of the brain. It is charged with taking care of several functions including our balance, equilibrium, coordination and even posture.

The Brain Stem

The Brain Stem is the part of the brain that keeps it all together. It connects the Cerebrum with the all-important spinal cord. It governs our elementary yet critical functions including eye movement, blood pressure and even swallowing. The information as highlighted above is naturally extremely elementary and not provided with the intention to break any records regarding insights to the functioning of the human brain. It does however urge the reader to consider what is a stake, even from an elementary viewpoint.

Sugar skulls

Often depicted as an item that harbours negative connotations such as evil and death, this could not be further than the truth when functioning as intended. Providing shelter and protection to this momentous organ, the brain, is the skull. The brain is the only organ in the human body that is encased for protection by bone.

Head protection in my experience, the wearing of such when required is often not the actual problem. More often than not, one is quite aware and constantly reminded of when head protection is required. On entry of a busy construction site or workshop the signage and people bustling around you with head protection is a hasty reminder of what is required. There are of course instances where such is blatantly ignored as is human nature and the consequences may follow however the issue frequently arises that head protection is not worn or handled in the correct manner.

Not only dangerous in that any protective equipment worn incorrectly may offer a false sense of security, if not worn according to manufacturer specifications, head protection may not offer what you are expecting…

Early in my safety career, I attended an induction session at a company who used hard hats as an example of illustrating how PPE could be worn incorrectly or abused. I remember thinking… where on earth???

Visuals appeared of hard hats being painted to replicate lady-bird markings complete with black spots. Packets of cigarettes, even wallets being stored beneath the suspension part of the hard hats and naturally, everyone’s favourite, wearing the hard hat back to front.

So why the restrictions and rules pertaining to the above? Everyone likes to stand out from the crowd and have their own take on things. What is the harm?

To elaborate, let’s look at the ‘skeleton’ of a hard hat. A hard hat may consist of three elements:

  • The durable outer shell
  • The specifically designed suspension system
  • Chin straps

At this stage, it would be fair to state that not all hard hats are created equally however for the purpose of this article we will address some general rules of thumb applicable to hard hats.

It’s a cover up

So, as much as we would like to brighten up our work attire by painting a rainbow or similar on our hard hats, we will have to engineer another way to do this!

Paint and other markings may provide cover for possible deviations such as cracks or perforations to the outer shell. In fact, the paint used may even deteriorate the plastic utilised for the manufacture of the hard hat. Cracks or damage to the outer shell of a hard hat will dramatically reduce the protection capacity of the hard hat.

Head protection is not designed to deliver for eternity. Damage caused to the outer shell is comparatively easy when one considers the elements to which this equipment may be exposed. Obviously, if the hard hat has been exposed to trauma or impact it will have to be replaced however even the weather or regular (man) handling may cause damage. The shell must be inspected daily for such and without the impairment of paint or embellishments, this task can be conducted with more accuracy.

Space invaders

Being female, I get this one. One can hardly work on site with a hand/man bag in tow – so where to put all those accessories? On a serious note, the harness or suspension element of a hard hat is an important aspect when we consider shock absorption. The impact of a falling object striking one’s head will be greatly reduced by the suspension within the hard outer shell. Wedging items between the suspension system and the shell will obviously compromise this protection. The suspension is designed to accommodate a gap between the shell and itself to distribute the force of an impact. Obstructing this space with a foreign object will result in overriding this design feature. In addition, the suspension element is designed with ventilation in mind so find a suitable storage place for those everyday essentials that does not involve your hard hat.

“head protection is not designed to deliver for eternity, damage caused to the outer shell is comparatively easy”

Reverse engineering

With surprising frequency, a reported concern is that of employees wearing their hard hats back to front. Unfortunately, the problem with this is that the manufacturer has probably not considered this method of donning during the design phase and the hard hat will fail to offer the protection intended when worn in this manner.

This trend tends to occur for a variety of reasons ranging from reports of obstructed vision to wanting to ‘look cool’. Often dismissed as ‘ridiculous excuses’ these obstacles for appropriate donning should, AT TIMES be considered by the safety professional. Although I personally fail to grasp the concept of following the fashion codes of Rappers and skate boarders, there are sometimes elements of truth to the excuses that need to be reviewed for relevance.

Before a decision is made that all and sundry will wear a standard hard hat, there should be time dedicated to assessing the potential hazards and the level of risk.

There are options available that may be more readily accepted by the workforce and offer the required level of protection for the task or environment. For example, where there is zero risk of overhead hazards, but head protection may be necessary to reduce minor impacts to the head from bumping into stationary objects, a bump cap may be considered. A bump cap differs in design from a hard had in that it is a lightweight version of the hard hat. It usually consists of a lining or padding of some description to protect the worker from minor knocks and scrapes. It is not designed for substantial impacts and is certainly not to be considered a viable alternative in all circumstances, but rather where minor bumps are to be expected.

In terms of work being performed where ‘looking up’ is a frequent requirement and visually the longer peak of a hard hat may impair the view, one may consider a hard hat with a shorter peak. The peak of a hard hat serves a purpose in deflecting possible falling objects and should not automatically be dismissed without evaluation.

At the end of the day, it would be beneficial to all parties if the head protection issued is utilised correctly versus not. If this translates into different options that may offer equal protection, it should be considered following a comprehensive risk assessment.

Chins up!

Chin straps are an option to be considered. For the purpose of keeping a hard hat in place, an adjustable three[1]point mechanism to physically strap the hard hat to the head under the chin is available.

The suspension and adjustment system will go a long way in ensuring that the hard hat will stay in place, but there are always situations where additional assistance in doing so may be deemed necessary.

Working at heights is an area of concern where chin straps may be essential. Risk assessments will assist to indicate where such may be required. Consider tasks such as scaffold erection and dismantling. This task involves vast amounts of physicality in that the positions undertaken are continually changed and involve plenty of movement.

Chin straps are therefore a good option in this scenario. Not forgetting that if employees do experience a fall, the hard “hard hats are being designed to track important information such as body temperature and heart rate” hat may become dislodged and no longer be available to protect the worker when he needs it most. In addition, hard hats can become falling objects if not secure and this may create a hazardous situation for those below.

Last line of defence

Although the importance of wearing head protection cannot be undermined, it is once again necessary to highlight the hierarchy of controls in terms of health and safety as a discipline. Head protection should be, as with all forms of PPE, the last form of defence.

The enforcement of head protection should not be an excuse to gloss over other hazard control practices that may reduce the risk of head injuries. To elaborate, a great deal can be done to prevent hard hats from being a stand alone control in eliminating head injuries.

“hard hats are being designed to track important information such as body temperature and heart rate”

Although not always practical in every situation there are areas where barricading and signage may be applied around where work at heights may be encountered. This provides warning to other employees or visitors and prohibits them from entering. To a degree, this eliminates the risk of being struck by a falling object.

Another example of reducing the impact potential is one that we practice at my own place of work.

Sharp edges of steel and other protruding objects are often cause for concern when considering head injuries. This exemplifies when working on or around a job where many such hazards are present, often just at head height. Prior to work commencing, these potential sharp points and edges are safeguarded with items that we may deem suitable as rarely they are of the same size or shape. Items and objects such as rubber and plastic pipe off cuts, used rags, or plastic bottles and containers are utilised to this end. By being creative with what we have available (as it is not a one-size-fits- all scenario), we can ensure that these high-risk contact points are cushioned to soften the blow should it occur.

Training of course a critical component in ensuring compliance in any area of health and safety. Reasons for wearing head protection far outweighs those for not. With this in mind, employees must be reminded of why it is important and the potential consequences of non-compliance.

Train, practice, repeat….

It takes some creativity to encourage the wearing of head protection.

In honour of World Brain Day a few years ago, the following facts and myths about our brains were published by the DENT Neurological institute, to drum up support!

Multitasking is impossible

When we think we are multi-tasking (a skill reserved for the fairer sex!) we are in fact context switching. Interchanging between tasks and not completing them all at once. In fact, research has shown that it takes twice as long to do something when multi-tasking!

About 75% of the brain is made up of water

Translating into the fact that even 2% worth of dehydration can impact negatively on our brain functions. This can have a detrimental effect on our memory and attention span.

It is a myth that humans only use 10% of our brain

In actual fact, we use all of it. Even when we are asleep, we are using in excess of 10% of the brain’s function.

The human brain gets smaller as we get older

The human brain continues to develop up until late in your 40s. It is the longest developing organ in the human body. At around mid-life the brain does begin to get smaller however there is no evidence that a larger brain is smarter than a smaller brain.

Brain activity can power a small light bulb

The human brain, when awake generates 12-25 watts of electricity – which is enough to power a small light bulb.

Heading out….

Head protection has progressed in terms of comfort and design from its humble origins and technology is evolving still as hard hats are being designed to incorporate methods of tracking additional important information pertaining to employees such as body temperature and heart rate. Head protection is the way of the past present and future, if one plans on having one!