The human body is made up of many different parts, all designed for various purposes, movement, breathing, sustenance and reproduction, just to name a few. These body parts vary dramatically in purpose, shape and size, and they are all important to us to varying degrees.
What amazes me about our bodies is how incredibly resilient they are, being able to function with severe damage, or even with parts totally missing! Even the head itself can sometimes sustain seemingly impossible injury and still function, so what is the worry? Well, it is the risk to the head because it contains the most vital piece of our “hardware”, our brain.
Our neural network
Our brain is our biological super-computer. It can process many thousands of pieces of information, at incredibly fast speeds, to help drive our decision-making processes. That way, we do not get ourselves or others hurt or killed, in an ideal world. It does this by making use of our five senses (sight, smell, taste, touch and sight) which causes chemical processes and reactions to occur in the brain, which can then convert the perceived stimuli from these senses into physical and/or mental actions and responses. In other words, the senses give our brain the information to decipher, or “figure out”. The result of this then impacts upon how we act, live and speak.
Any damage to this vital piece of equipment is, pardoning the pun, unthinkable. A human without a brain is basically a random collection of organic material, organised into various systems, that cannot really do anything by itself, other than to simply “exist”. Again, imagine using your own computer, tablet or other electronic devices that you have at home and in the workplace. All they will do, is what you tell them to do. So, if you tell them to do nothing, that is exactly what you will get. As the brain is housed in the skull, it has no real “cushioning” against any impact, except for a few thin membrane-type layers. These membranes are the layer between the brain and the cranium. The cranium, like the rest of our skeleton, is hard bone. Apart from a few small openings for nerves and blood vessels, the cranium totally surrounds the brain, acting as a protective shield. So, despite this “natural” protection, just one impact on the head can be enough to kill someone, if not cause permanent damage (often referred to in Medical Terms as TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injury), as the brain simply “rattles around” in the skull.
“brain injury has a devastating effect not only on the victim, but also on their families”
Where incidents have occurred in the workplace, and the result has been a “brain injury” this has a devastating effect not only on the victim themselves, but their families, friends, co-workers and others. Imagine a parent with a young child who has never worked before, who suddenly not only has to try to learn skills and knowledge to go into the workforce – on top of caring for and raising their child on their own– but they now also have to care for an adult who can no longer care for themselves. I urge everyone reading this article to go and watch “Construction Safety Film – Your Family Needs You”, a safety video from the MTR Corporation of Hong Kong. This is the exact realistic scenario that they portray. The video can be found through this YouTube link, www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTcw8bzCDPw.
It’s a no-brainer
Some of you reading this will have noticed that the awareness of brain injury has become much more prevalent in our society today, particularly when it comes to the sporting world, with the relatively recent introduction of concussion protocols, concussion substitutes, rules around new head protection and even a ban on heading footballs, and physical tackling in rugby (for those participants under a certain age).
This is all due to the now greatly increased understanding of the impact of concussion and blows to the head, and the chronic (long term) impact that can occur on brain development, as a result. This new understanding also includes the potential damage caused by even a single impact on the brain, let alone repeated incidences that may happen over and over again (heading a football, taking blows to the head in contact sports, and so on).
As someone who has personally suffered a concussion playing contact sports, after my head made contact with another persons’ knee, I can certainly tell you that there are five minutes of my life that I have no re-collection of at all. This is the reality, no matter how hard I try to remember the incident or how much I discuss it with those people that were there when it happened. It feels very much like it had happened to someone else, which is as unsettling as you can imagine. I am very fortunate that, other than this very short space of memory loss, I appear to have no “long-term” issues, up to now.
As well as this memory loss that I have just discussed, the victims of brain injury can have their behaviour drastically altered, lose the ability to control bodily co-ordination and certain motor functions (such as speech, using the toilet and/or using their limbs), have loss of feeling in the body and other traumatic issues.
Should the brain swell due to bruising, bleeding and other issues, as the skull is solid and therefore not able to stretch, the brain can “push” against the skull. With no way for this pressure to be released other than surgical intervention (in a lot of cases) eventually, this can cause permanent damage, leading in some cases to no brain function at all. This can be referred to as “brain death” (it is important that you note that brain death can be categorised very differently, depending upon which part of the world you live and work in).
Even taking away injury to the brain, workers can easily suffer from other injuries and ill-health related to the head, such as becoming partially or totally blind, losing one or both eyes and ears, and suffer from a myriad of other devastating consequences as a result of head injury (maybe even decapitation of the whole head, in extreme cases). Whilst modern medicine is continually advancing, and we now have things like laser eye surgery and hearing aids, at the end of the day these are only mitigation measures, they do not necessarily fix the issue. Instead of relying on these medical interventions, we should be doing our very best to not allow these sorts of consequences to be occurring in our workplaces in the first place. This is where head protection can play a vital role in this important mission.
A history of head protection
Like many of the things that we now take for granted in our normal everyday lives, the origins of head protection can be traced back to historical military roots. Very early on in the history of war and conflict, soldiers learned that the enemy could keep fighting you, even if they had lost limbs and suffered other seemingly catastrophic injuries. A hard enough blow to the head, however, would usually put an enemy down straight away – if not at least make them “combat ineffective” – eliminating any potential size, strength, speed or other advantage the enemy had (think of the story of David and Goliath, the small man defeating the giant with a single blow to the head). This is why helmets were created.
In today’s modern militaries, there are “ballistic”, “tactical” and other various types of helmets that can help deflect incredibly fast projectiles like bullets and shrapnel, and/or provide a barrier against injury from enemy combatants using bladed, blunt and other hand-held weapons. These ultra-modern designs are made of various materials, including Kevlar, Twaron (a heat resistant synthetic fibre) and other more secret “advanced materials and substances”. They started off, however, as very simple coverings worn on the head, made of materials including basic metals, leather and other animal skins/products, and other materials.
Away from the military scene, head protection started off in the workplace in various forms around the time of the late 19th century. As I am sure you can appreciate, these first early designs were not the most comfortable or effective in the world, often being made up of leather, wood and other materials, just as their early military counterparts were.
As these materials and technology have improved and evolved however, things have become much better for protecting worker’s heads. Metal linings such as steel plates began to be added to the interior of these “designs” for an increased level of protection, before the first fully constructed aluminium hard hats were produced. This was soon taken over, and eventually replaced by, the advent of plastic-injection moulding technologies. Nowadays, we have more advanced materials such as variations of synthetic fibres, polymers, polyethylene and resin, amongst others.
As well as this development in materials technology, head protection has also developed to offer other benefits to the wearer. Many head protection solutions also now have chin straps and other securing means, and are usually adjustable to be able to take into account various sizes and shapes of worker’s heads. This adjustability, along with interior padding in some cases, is also sometimes being included to give added comfort for the wearer. As I am sure you can imagine, this factor of comfort is certainly high on the list of priorities for those workers who are expected to wear Head Protection for multiple hours at a time.
Other additional protection and advantages that can be incorporated into head protection can include slots on the hard hat rim for mounting ear defenders, personal gas monitors, eye protection, and other devices and equipment such as radios for communication.
A case for culture
Like many aspects of safety and the workplace, there are all sorts of factors and considerations that we must take into account when deciding upon head protection for our workforce. Within a general risk assessment approach there are the usual factors to look at and analyse such as our workplace hazards and risks; current control measures and their effectiveness; what work is being done, where, how, and by who; and so on.
There are also other considerations though. Different jurisdictions will dictate different legislative and regulatory requirements for head protection measures, and we may also have to consider contractual requirements and standards (within the client/contractor relationship).
In today’s modern world, a worker’s religious belief is now also a consideration to be seriously taken into account. This can become a bit of a legal minefield, so great care should be taken so that neither the worker’s beliefs, nor the relevant laws, are compromised.
Let me be very clear, on this subject I have no opinion good or bad regarding religion itself, when you consider I am someone who has lived in many countries and experienced many cultures and peoples. I am merely speaking from the Safety point of view.
“great care should be taken so that neither the worker’s beliefs, nor the relevant laws, are compromised”
This factor around a worker’s individual religious belief might mean that the solution could simply be to move workers into workplaces, departments, sites, activities etc. where there is no need for head protection, because there are no “head hazards” present. Alternatively, Hijabs, Tudongs and other head coverings may be able to be worn underneath the head protection provided. Indeed, these head coverings themselves can have safety measures designed into them, such as those made up of fireproof/fire resistant materials, for example.
The following article that I have linked you to discusses a worker in Canada who gives you ideas of how she wears her Hijab, whilst still being able to wear a hard hat (https://ospe.on.ca/community/workplace-safety-clothing-hijab).
Within the laws themselves there may also be some exemptions, on religious grounds, to the use of head protection. These can include:
- Those found under law in the United Kingdom, for Sikhs who wear turbans (www.hse.gov.uk/contact/faqs/sikhs-head-protection.htm), which is enforced by the Health & Safety Executive
- A broader exemption under the United States of America’s OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) requirements (https://www.osha.gov/enforcement/directives/std-01-06-005)
It is important to note that the above should not be considered as legal advice. As with anything within the legal realm, if you are unsure, always consult the enforcing authority in your area and a legal professional.
There is a lot of information out in the world that discusses the myriad different types of head protection measures available, and what their potential benefits and advantages to the workforce are. Rather than repeat this information “ad infinitum” (in other words, again and again), I hope that today’s article has instead given you a little more insight, information and understanding as to how head protection first evolved; how it has developed and improved just as the rest of our workplace safety measures have; and now allows you to take into account some of the less “thought of”, but just as important, factors that you may need to consider when you are deciding upon what head protection solutions are relevant for you and your colleagues. As always, make as much use as possible of the advice and guidance available from specialists, head protection suppliers, your local enforcing authority, and industry standards and “best practice”, so that you can keep your head firmly on your shoulders.