Head protection is one of the most critical elements of personal protective equipment. This is because our heads are delicate and vulnerable and can be easily damaged. Of course, one of our most important organs, our brain, is also contained within our skulls. As with all aspects of health and safety, a proper risk assessment must be conducted first to establish if there is any risk of head injury from the work or task that you are about to engage in.
Again, as with all aspects of health and safety, if there is a risk of head injury then you have to apply the hierarchy of controls to determine the most appropriate protective measures to take. This would involve trying to eliminate the hazard if at all possible. An example might be that if you had a construction activity where there was a risk of dropped objects striking someone on the head, then one way to try and eliminate the hazard may be to separate the people from the risk. This might involve barricading off the area to prevent people from coming into contact with the overhead materials. If this is not possible another option may be to construct a protective “tunnel” for passers-by, such that any materials that fall will land on the roof of the tunnel. This is the approach generally taken by construction activities on public shopping areas where it is not practicable to barricade off access to the shops and, of course, it is not feasible to ask all members of the public to wear a protective helmet.
In many cases we do try to take preventative and administrative controls, but often there is still some residual risk of head injury which we have to try and manage. This invariably comes down to the provision of personal protective equipment. With head protection this is generically known as a “hard hat”. But, it should be recognised that not all “hard hats” are the same. The piece of head protection that most of us are probably more familiar with is a cycling helmet, designed to protect our heads if we fall off our bicycles.
Cycling helmets are fitted with ventilation areas to make them more comfortable, they often have an aerodynamic design. I have often been asked why construction helmets aren’t also fitted with ventilation spaces to make them more comfortable, and of course the reason is that these two types of head gear are designed to protect us from different hazards. The construction helmet aims to protect us from dropped or falling objects, including sharp objects like hand tools, and materials like glass. So, it would not be practicable to have ventilation strips in this type of helmet as sharp objects could pass through the gaps and still cause significant injury. Cycling helmets are not designed to protect the cyclist from dropped objects.
“protective head gear must comply with an internationally recognised standard”
I also used to get asked why construction workers could not wear “bump caps”, these hats, often known as Miners Bump Caps, were popularly worn by coal miners to give the top of their head some protection from rock protrusions as they walked along shafts. The bump caps did not have a protective space under the hard-shell of the hat, the way that a construction helmet does, which made it easier when walking underneath scaffolding as the individual could judge the height better. I am sure we have all had that awkward moment walking under a scaffold when the top of a hat has struck part of the scaffold and stopped us in our tracks. Once again, the explanation is similar, the bump cap is not designed to afford any protection from dropped objects, it is purely to stop the miner hitting their head on the rock shaft. So, in this case a bump cap affords the miner the protection they need but would be very limited in its value on a construction site.
The selection of protective head gear is important, and as such, protective head gear must comply with an internationally recognised standard. Examples would be as follows:
- Within the European Union –EN 397
- In the United States of America – ANSI/ISEA Z89.1-2014
Protective headwear is manufactured for specific environments such as extreme heat/extreme cold, and for specific tasks, e.g. lateral deformation and electrical insulation. It is therefore very important to review your specific requirements through your detailed risk assessment and discuss the opportunities with the manufacturing/supplying companies. Specifically, for lifting and hoisting, a helmet with lateral deformation properties is good as there is a significant risk to operators from being ‘swiped’ on the side of the head by a moving or swinging load.
“helmets which are continually exposed to sunlight can deteriorate faster”
Like all PPE, it is very important that the user (wearer) looks after it properly. Hard hats in particular are vulnerable to exposure to the sun. Repeated cycling in and out of sunlight can change the molecular make-up of the hard hat, which can result in the material becoming more “brittle”. One possible outcome of this is that the helmet no longer affords the same level of protection from a dropped object or side swipe. As a result of this, helmets are issued with maximum period of proposed use. This is usually displayed under the rim of the hat in the format of a circular series of dimples and then a month and year format. So, for February 2024 it would show up as 02/24. This is the recommendation to withdraw the helmet from service.
In some regions of the world the format shows the date when the helmet was made, with a recommendation to change the helmet after 5 years. So, depending upon where you live and work, you need to check which format is used. The manufacturer can assist you with this. One special note of caution, if you have a job role which requires you to drive between multiple sites, please do not store your protective helmet in a position in the car where it can be permanently exposed to the sun. Always store it in a bag, so it is not in direct sunlight. It has been noted that helmets which are continually exposed to sunlight can deteriorate faster than previously mentioned.
Protective Headgear Adapted for Different Tasks
Protective headwear has been adapted many times to help and assist workers, and to make it more comfortable to wear. For people working with cranes and other mechanical lifting devices where the operators are required to look up on a regular basis, a helmet has been developed with a smaller brim to aid visibility without forcing the operator to keep adjusting the helmet for vision. For people who are carrying loads on their shoulders like hoddies (people carrying bricks in hods) the headwear has flattened sides to stop the hod tipping the hat on the worker’s head.
Protective helmets are fitted with chinstraps to help prevent them from being blown off in strong winds. Protective headwear has also been adapted to wear in extreme cold and extreme heat environments. So, in essence, you need to select the most appropriate protective headwear for the task that you are about to perform.
The helmet should be adjusted so that it sits comfortably on your head, but not so tight that it feels “stuck” on your head. This increase in pressure will cause headaches. On the other hand, you do not want the helmet to be loose so that it rocks forward/backwards every time you move. It is about finding a balance. It should above all be comfortable for you. Most protective headwear is now fitted with a sweatband. In the old days cheaper helmets only had a plastic strap and this could be very uncomfortable to wear over a sustained period. Make sure the sweatband is in good condition and change it when it becomes worn.
“the design of the helmet can prevent direct, penetrative hits and turn them into deflected hits”
There are many different types of hazards, including dropped objects, banging your head on an overhead object and objects swinging into your head (from being in the line of fire). They can all have very severe consequences. The topic of dropped objects is probably one of the most common and there are a range of different objects that can fall, each with their own hazards.
Here are some examples of dropped objects which I have personally investigated.
Equipment packs were being prepared to be sent offshore. The transportation company would come to the yard to collect the work pack and take it to the dockyard to be loaded onto a vessel. The work crew that had been preparing the workplace had inadvertently left a large screwdriver on the top of the work pack. As the work pack was being lifted by crane onto the vessel, the screwdriver rolled off and fell on to the deck of the vessel below. It fell a height of some 20 metres. Fortunately, in this case the screwdriver did not hit anyone on the way down, but it could have done, and this incident was considered a “High Potential (for harm) Near Miss (or near hit, however you look at it). It was investigated in great detail, just as if it had caused an injury. A falling screwdriver like this has several special features of concern; it has a very sharp point and if it fell directly onto a person’s head, then the outcome would most likely be fatal. Even if a person was wearing a protective helmet, it is still possible that the screwdriver could penetrate the protective shell of the helmet. The protective shell should still slow the object down and hopefully stop it from penetrating the head of the wearer. The design of the helmet can also prevent direct, penetrative hits and turn them into deflected hits, whereby the object deflects or bounces off the side of the helmet. This could mean that the object does not cause a serious head injury, but it might strike the persons shoulder instead. Whilst still very unpleasant, this would be preferable to direct contact on the head.
In a further incident, a large object was being lowered into position using a mobile crane, the proximity to the scaffold access made the job very difficult. The scaffold was required in order to bolt up the curtain wall once it was in position. At one point during the operation, the steel wall hit the scaffold, and this caused a stored piece of scaffold flooring to become dislodged and to fall. The scaffold flooring then cascaded down, striking several other pieces of scaffolding on the way down. In doing so, it stuck a worker underneath the scaffolding on the head and shoulder. The worker was wearing a construction helmet, and this provided protection to prevent serious head injuries. The helmet absorbed the blow and ultimately deflected the metal flooring onto the shoulder of the wearer. Whilst this incident did damage the shoulder of the worker, had it not been for the protective helmet it could easily have resulted in fatal injuries.
One important point to raise here is that any time a protective helmet is struck in an incident, it must be replaced immediately.
A final incident for your consideration involved the movement of a container. The container was constructed with what are known as “fork-pockets”. These are purpose built channels to allow a forklift truck to insert and lift the container. Of course, these fork-pockets are small, narrow, and long, and that makes it very difficult to inspect inside them. This was a significant cause in what followed.
As the container was lifted by mobile crane onto the back of a vessel, stones, rubble and clods of mud all fell from the fork-pockets onto the dockyard below. Again, thankfully in this case, there was no injury associated with the incident. In most scenarios like this, workers either on the quayside or on the vessel, do not stand underneath the area where the lifting operation will take place. They will only approach the load under the strict guidance of the banksperson controlling the lift. This would only be in a scenario where they have to collect “tag” lines to help manoeuvre the load into position. By this stage the load will be close to the ground, further limiting the risk of a dropped object.
There is a large collection of great information on how to prevent dropped objects. Such as the Dropped Objects Prevention Scheme Global Resource Centre, which you can access online at www.dropsonline.org/resources-and-guidance/.
“photobooks form a pictorial risk assessment, through a series of photographs, to show how work should be executed”
To give a flavour of the type of guidance provided, the DROPs group describe the use of hand tool shadow boards, to highlight which hand tools are removed and which hand tools have not been replaced. The inference being that if a tool is missing on the shadow board, then it could have been left on a job and could therefore become a dropped object. Along with shadow boards, workers taking hand tools to work at height can use a specially adapted belt with lanyards for each tool required. This way, the hand tools required are always connected to the worker. If the tool is dropped, it is retained by the lanyard. In addition, tools are not likely to be left at height by mistake as they are attached the working belt.
Other guidelines include the use of “photobooks”. This is a form of pictorial risk assessment, and shows, through a series of detailed photographs, how work should be executed. The idea being that the photograph shows the work team how the work piece should look as it is prepared. If there is any difference between the photograph and what the team can see, then this would be cause for investigation to ensure that all appropriate steps have been completed properly. Depending on the complexity of work, the photobook could run to several pages.
“wearing comfortable and appropriate head gear is essential to our continued wellbeing”
Secondary retention is a further technique that can be used to hopefully minimise the risk of dropped objects. This can take many forms. One such example is in an offshore environment where there are many strategically placed loudspeakers to broadcast important information. These speakers are invariably bolted onto structural beams. Given the harsh environment, it is not uncommon for the bolts to become rusty and fail from time to time. It has been known for some of these speakers to fall as dropped objects. But by applying what is known as secondary retention, if the speakers do fail, they are “caught” by the secondary retention. This is effectively a steel loop that passes around the speaker and the beam, so that the speaker is not solely dependent upon the bolts for security. Secondary retention has been used in a multitude of different scenarios to help prevent dropped objects. Despite all of our best intentions, dropped objects do still occur and it is vital therefore that we continue to use personal protective equipment to help prevent head injuries. Wearing comfortable and appropriate head gear is essential to our continued wellbeing.