When it comes to staying safe in the workplace, it's imperative to keep the head protected. As one of the most critical areas of the body, any impact to the head could lead to serious injuries including concussions (i.e., brain injuries), potential brain damage, or even death.

To better protect workers in at-risk professions, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released a new safety and health bulletin advising workers to swap out the conventional hard hat for a safety helmet. OSHA is following this guidance with its own employees when they inspect sites, and there's reason to believe that this initiative will trickle down to other industries and at-risk professions.

It's important to note that, for now, this is something that only OSHA is doing. The hard hat-safety helmet swap has only been suggested - not mandated - in other industries and professions. However, the benefits of adopting it largely outweigh perhaps the lone con associated with safety helmets—the cost.

This post covers the importance of head protection, why OSHA is suggesting the hard hat-safety helmet swap, key benefits of the safety helmet compared to the hard hat, and more.

The Importance of Head Protection

According to data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, head injuries account for about 6 percent of non-fatal occupational injuries. While about 20 percent of head injuries are the result of slips, trips or falls, about half of all head injuries involve the head coming into contact with either an object or a piece of equipment. This data alone underscores the importance of proper protection for the head in applicable workplaces.

Hard Hat vs. Safety Helmet: What are the Differences?

So, what's the difference between a hard hat and safety helmet? While hard hats have long been the number one choice for head protection on job sites and many at-risk professions, they haven't really evolved much over the years. Safety helmets, on the other hand, have continued to advance and improve with time.

For example, hard hats do a good job of protecting the top of a worker's head, but not the sides of the head. Conventional hard hats also don't include chin straps, which makes them more susceptible to falling off - especially if a worker slips, trips, or falls. Hart hats also have less internal padding, which helps reduce the impact of any collisions.

Safety helmets offer better overall head protection. Many offer anti-concussion technologies, such as Multidirectional Impact Protection Systems (MIPS) or similar protective systems. Safety helmets also offer side protection, and often incorporate face shields or goggles, or even hearing protection technologies.

Why the Switch?

Why did OSHA switch from hard hats to safety helmets? In addition to the other benefits mentioned, another critical advantage of safety helmets is enhanced ergonomics.

In fact, safety helmets tend to be much lighter than conventional hard hats, as they're made of lightweight materials such as composites, thermoplastics, and fiberglass. These materials have a great strength-to-weight ratio, which helps them offer superior head protection and takes the strain off the neck while improving overall comfort.

It's estimated that some 2 million workers suffer from work-related muscular or skeletal disorders each year, and about 600,000 workers miss time while recovering from said issues. That said, the ergonomic benefits of safety helmets are arguably just as important as the added protection you get when wearing a safety helmet.

There are a few other benefits to note when it comes to safety helmets vs. hard hats. While a bit more expensive than hard hats, safety helmets last for up to 10 years. Hard hats, on the other hand, need to be replaced after 5 years. This brings us to perhaps the lone disadvantage of safety helmets - their cost.

Safety helmets cost upwards of $100 while hard hats are in the $15 to $30 range. However, when you consider the costs of workers’ compensation that's paid out for head and brain injuries, the investment could more than make up for this deficit in the long run. Data from the National Safety Council (NSC) states that the average worker's compensation claim for a workplace head injury is more than $92,000.

Safety Helmets and the Professions/Industries it Applies to

It's important to mention again that OSHA has not mandated the use of safety helmets for industries or professions outside of its current staff. However, it is recommending safety helmets. Many employers have already begun shifting to safety helmets for the enhanced safety benefits. That said, every employer should carefully assess their specific applications and or / work environment(s) to determine if safety helmets represent the best option for their workers.

Here's a look at some of the professions and industries that OSHA suggests make the switch:

  • Construction
  • Oil and gas
  • Any profession where work is done at heights
  • Electrical work
  • High-temperature environments, especially those that work with molten materials
  • Specialized work environments that require facial protection or hearing protection
  • Industries or professions where more specific regulatory standards must be met

Head Protection Standards to Know

There are a few standards that are worth reviewing as it pertains to PPE and head protection in the industrial workplace. Here's a brief overview of these standards:

  • 29 CFR 1910.135: This is an OSHA standard that covers the general requirements for head protection in the workplace. Review it for an overview of how to select the best head protection for a specific site and/or profession and to learn more about the responsibility of employers and the rights of employees in doing so.
  • ANSI/ISEA Z89.1: This is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard for industrial head protection. It specifies details such as testing requirements for head protection. It includes requirements for both safety helmets and hard hats.

Do you work in an industry or employ professionals who could benefit from making the switch from hard hats to safety helmets? If you're serious about maximizing workplace safety, then it's something to consider. The long and short-term benefits of safety helmets in high-risk environments ensures worker safety and productivity for the long haul.