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Preventing Head Injuries

Published: 10th Aug 2008

Head Protection is often the only form of protection

According to the ILO there are 2.3 million work-related deaths each year with 350,000 fatal accidents, worldwide. Predictably, the construction sector is the most hazardous with around 60,000 fatal accidents globally each year. This equates to a fatal accident every 10 minutes.

A significant proportion of these deaths relate to head injuries across a wide spectrum of industries and sectors. There are also millions of head injuries including many which are debilitating and leading to disablement or the need for long term care.

The risk of head injury is a common risk in many workplaces and the use of head protection is often the only or most appropriate form of protection.

But with the provision of head protection comes a multitude of health and safety management issues. What type of head protection is needed? How is it selected? How is it cared for and maintained? What training requirements are there? What are the behavioural and human factors which might affect whether workers use the head protection issued to them? How are issues of compatibility with other types of PPE solved? Are there ergonomic issues relating to the wearing of head protection? How should the issue of religious beliefs relating to headwear be dealt with?

Risk assessment

The starting point within any Safety Management System for dealing with any hazard and risk within the workplace is to perform a risk assessment. Techniques for risk assessment are well known and usually will commence with an identification and appreciation of head-hazards present for the activity or process under review. There are many different types of hazards which may cause a head injury and which may affect the selection of the type of head protection. For example:

  • Falling objects such as experienced by workers on construction sites
  • Bump hazards when workers may walk into objects and structures. For example for workers working in confined areas, close to overhead obstructions, such as in plant rooms and similar areas
  • High temperatures such as experienced by those involved in hot processes such as foundry work, and other work with molten metals
  • Moving machinery which could entangle those workers with long hair
  • Protecting the product, for example those working in food preparation areas or other clean areas such as ‘microchip’ manufacture
  • Biological contamination such as those working with biological materials in a laboratory

In terms of control measures it is well know that the issue of personal protective equipment including head protection should be the last resort and other measures should be considered first. For example controlling risks at source by preventing falling objects by means of barriers or nets, or close guarding of dangerous moving parts may negate the need for head protection. But such measures are not always feasible, practicable, or financially viable. In such cases the issue and use of head protection may be the most appropriate form of protection.

Types of head protection

The safety helmet

There are many different designs of safety helmets, but fundamentally they have the same purpose and that is to protect the wearer from head injury arising from falling objects. It is important to select a helmet which is designed to a recognised standard, and therefore will have been tested to ensure proper protection of the user. Most countries have established national or international standards relating to safety helmets. Safety helmets are typically of polycarbonate construction and designed to protect against impact, for example from falling objects. Many international standards also meet requirements for use at low or high temperatures, electrical insulation and molten metal splash. The helmet should have an adjustable headband to ensure good fit and comfort. Safety helmets have a shelf life, which is usually 2 to 3 years, and the helmet should not be used beyond its expected life span and a replacement regime should be established. Helmets which have received an impact, even from dropping the helmet, should be withdrawn from use. Helmets are sometimes adulterated with names and logos.

This can sometimes affect the integrity of the helmet because of the solvents which are sometimes present in inks, markers and labels used for personalisation of helmets. Only forms of marking which the maker approves should be used. Chinstraps are also essential to prevent the helmet from falling off in windy conditions or during activities which might cause the helmet to fall off.

The bump cap

The bump cap provides lightweight head protection where high impact resistance is not essential but where there is a risk of minor bumps or scrapes to the head. They must not be used as a safety helmet in areas where protection against high-level impact is required. The bump cap is typically used in plant rooms, the food industry and similar sectors. An advantage of the bump cap is that as a lightweight helmet they are arguably more comfortable than a conventional safety helmet and are therefore more likely to be worn for long periods. They also lend themselves to more fashionable designs and bump caps can be obtained for example as a baseball style cap.

Other types of head protection

The simple hair net or cap is a useful form of head protection. In some cases it will also protect the product, such as in food handling or manufacture, or in clean areas such as high tech manufacturing. This form of head protection can also protect the user from contact with dangerous moving machinery such as rotating parts. People with long hair should always wear a hair net or similar head protection when such risks are present.

Head protection which can give protection from radiant heat are also available. These come in the form of safety helmets which are heat resistant and also heat resistant hoods which give more extensive protection against radiant heat. Those working in hot industries such as foundries or in a fire-fighting role would need to wear such head protection.

There are also other specialised types of head protection available such as those which allow for the insertion of a miners lamp and other specialised uses and environments.

Compatibility and ergonomic considerations

An important consideration when selecting head protection is to consider whether other types of personal protection will be worn in conjunction with the head protection. For example, those working in noisy environments may need to wear hearing protection, such as earmuffs as well as a helmet. Alternatively those working in an environment where there is exposure to respiratory contaminants may also need to wear respiratory protective equipment, such as respirators or breathing apparatus.

In some environments there is the risk of eye or face injury as well as danger to the head and consequently eye protection may need to be worn with the head protection. In such cases, conventional head protection is often not easily compatible with other forms of personal protective equipment. For example earmuffs do not fit beneath a convention safety helmet potentially making both types of protection ineffective. Goggles and visors and other types of eye-protection often do not fit with a safety helmet or other type of head protection. Therefore, it is important when selecting head protection to consider the need for other types of personal protective equipment and select head protection, which provides the necessary compatibility. There are many types of head protection, which have been designed, and purpose built to combine different types of personal protective equipment.

It is also important when selecting head protection to take into account ergonomic considerations. Does the head protection fit correctly? Is it easily adjustable? Is it comfortable? Can it be worn in the environment intended? Some ethnic groups, such as Sikhs may object for religious reasons, to wearing head protection. This can present difficult problems for those managing health and safety in workplaces.

It may be possible through thorough risk assessments to identify areas where head protection is not required and also to consider other control measures other than head protection, to prevent the risk of head injury. Some countries such as the United Kingdom have modified their legal requirements on Head Protection to account for the religious beliefs of Sikhs. The UK Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989, exempts Sikhs from the need to wear head protection on construction sites.

Training and human behaviour

As with all types of personal protective equipment, head protection as a control measure will only be effective if it is properly used. In this respect training of the user is essential. Any training, needs to explain the need for head protection and the consequences of not wearing it or not wearing it properly. For example when safety helmets are worn ‘back to front’ they do not afford proper head protection for the wearer.

Research shows consistently, that where accidents occur, a major cause is the behaviour of the user of the head protection. This is often because the head protection was not worn or not worn properly. People often take a chance by not wearing head protection in areas where it is required. This is sometimes because the user does not fully appreciate why the head protection is needed and the consequences of not wearing it. This may because their perception of risk is not realistic and training may be required in an attempt to modify their perception of risk and their behaviour. In other cases the user may have a negative attitude regarding health and safety measures.

Training may modify such attitudes, but in some cases management action such as disciplinary measures may be required. The health and safety culture of the organisation being worked for will make a difference too. If health and safety within the organisation is perceived to be important by workers then they are more likely to comply with health and safety rules including those regarding the wearing of head protection.

Consequently, managers and supervisors must take the lead and set an example by ensuring that they wear their head protection at all times. Site rules also have a role to play. It will be necessary for organisations to designate zones and areas require the use of head protection and to ensure that the rules are adhered to. In some cases the whole site may be designated as a head protection area, for example a construction site.

Conclusions

The use of head protection in the workplace is an important control method for protecting people. The starting point for organisations is to perform a risk assessment to identify what type of risk is present and if necessary to provide head protection to those at risk. There are many different types of head protection available and these must be carefully selected to match the risks which are present.

When selecting head protection any maintenance and replacement requirements for the head protection must also be considered. Typically, for example safety helmets should be replaced every two years depending on the manufacturers requirements. Compatibility with other types of protective equipment is also an important consideration if protection is to be effective. Training is essential if the user is to understand why the head protection is necessary and how and when to wear it. In some cases disciplinary action may be necessary enforce site rules for head protection.

Head protection is a well-established method of control and it is easy to get complacent about its use in the workplace. But is does in fact provide a vital and simple means of protection in those cases where the risk cannot be controlled by other means. There is often only one chance when it comes to a head injury and death often results. Correct use of suitable head protection can save lives.

Published: 10th Aug 2008 in Health and Safety Middle East

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