When you are working on a site – whether in construction, manufacturing, or anywhere else where people and materials move around – head protection is vital.

Workers have a choice of two types of head protection: hard hats and bump caps. And which is the right choice depends entirely on the situation and the types of hazards employees might encounter.

Hard Hats and Bump Caps – What's the Difference?

Hard Hats

A hard hat is a physically solid helmet. It's usually made from a high-grade, injection-molded plastic or fiberglass shell and a shock-absorbing, adjustable inner suspension ring.

Hard hats are mandatory on construction sites or anywhere where there is the danger of falling objects or moving items. Even the smallest bolt or screwdriver can gain enough momentum to become a fatal projectile when falling from height. A person, too, can easily slip and fall and hit their head on solid ground due to the distractions and hazards in their environment.

(Find out What the ANSI/ISEA 121-2018 Dropped Objects Standard Means for Safety Managers.)

Bump Caps

A bump cap either looks like a baseball cap or like a hard hat made of thin plastic. It has a softer, more compact shell than the hard hat, and normally features a sun visor. Unlike a baseball cap, however, bump caps are padded.

Bump caps are designed for people working in spaces where they might bump their head against low obstacles, or perhaps when working in a location like a basement crawl space or an airplane baggage hold. As its name suggests, a bump cap protects against mild contact between a person’s head and a surface, where it is the person and not the surface or object doing the moving.

The padding provides enough protection to avoid bruising, cutting, and, more importantly, the momentary disorientation that can occur at the moment of impact. That disorientation, and perhaps even “seeing stars,” can lead to further injury, since your concentration and situational awareness are temporarily obscured.

Bump caps are also more breathable and more comfortable to wear than hard hats.

The Right Choice Comes Down to Motion

We can distinguish hard hats and bump caps by listing out their features, but the best industry definition focuses on the motion involved.

A bump cap is designed to protect against wearer-initiated motion, such as bumping your head against a wall or obstacle.

A hard hat, on the other hand, is designed to protect against object-initiated motion, when an object moves toward a person and strikes them.

So, the right head protection for the job comes down to the dangers that are present. If there is no danger of items falling from above, or moving objects becoming an injury hazard, then a bump cap will likely suffice. But this is a minority of working situations. Most worksites will mandate the wearing of hardhats, as will regional occupational health and safety organizations like OSHA, since threats and hazards are seldom predictable, and the maximum available safety coverage is always advisable.

Free Download: 5 Big Facts to Know About ANSI/ISEA 121-2018


So Why Do Bump Caps Exist at All?

Bump caps can be less expensive to buy and less cumbersome to wear. They also fit better when wearing additional equipment like a welder’s mask, working in confined spaces, or in non-vertical situations (such as lying flat on a surface) because they don’t require a chin strap to stay on.

A site manager may approve the use of bump caps in situations where the only thing in motion is the worker, and only at low speed, such as crawling inside a cupboard to access plumbing pipes or working on an engine.

Hardshell bump caps offer a little more protection through a physically hard polyethylene helmet. These resemble hard hats but don't offer the same level of protection. They are often used by pest control specialists and food processing or meat packing personnel.

Even a cut or gash from an exposed nail or piece of equipment can be enough to stop work and seek medical attention, all of which can be avoided by wearing a bump cap.

A Baseball Cap Can Be Made into a Bump Cap

Baseball caps have no padding and offer no protection against impact. Their only safety feature is the sun protection afforded by the visor.

Baseball caps can, however, be converted to bump caps by installing bump cap inserts. These are available at many safety supply companies. Using these inserts allows users a wider range of styles since they can wear any conventional baseball cap.

Don’t Skimp When It Comes to Head Protection

Some people are attracted to bump caps because of the cost, which can be half to a quarter the price of a hard hat. Some bump caps, however, are more expensive than hard hats due to the materials used.

But price should never take precedent over making the safest choice. Ideally, workers will have one of each and have the training to know when to use which.

Head Protection Is Vital

At any worksite, full protection is vital. From your head down to your feet, every part of your body deserves full protection against the hazards present in the working environment, even those that are hard to predict.

Proper head protection ranks extremely high on the list of priorities. Like all other types of safety equipment, bump caps and hardhats should be inspected regularly for damage and wear, and even those in apparently good condition should be replaced prior to their expiration date.

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