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How do I choose the best head protection for my job?

By Daniel Clark | Last updated: May 10, 2021

An occupational head injury can be disfiguring, incapacitating, or even fatal. On job sites where falling objects or "head bangers" can be found, it's critical to keep the head protected. A millimeter of thermoplastic polymer could determine whether a tool falling from overhead ruins your day or ruins your life.

That might sound dramatic, but proper head protection deserves attention. There are so many varieties of helmets and hardhats available. How do you know which one is right for the job?

The sticker on the inside of a hardhat should identify the following:

  • The standard to which it has been tested
  • Type
  • Class
  • Additional temperature ratings
  • High visibility (if applicable)
  • An icon indicating it can be reverse-donned

This is where you will find the relevant information to make a suitable choice of head protection, but you need an understanding of what it all means.

(Read about An Intro to Hard Hat Liners - and How to Choose One.)

The sticker should indicate the hardhat has been tested to ANSI Z89.1. That standard gives a thorough overview of design and performance criteria for head protection. It details comprehensive manufacturing requirements as well as guidance for use in different applications. This is the standard that OSHA refers to for basically all detail beyond saying head protection is needed if something might hit your head.

Two basic types of hardhat are available: Type I and Type II. The difference between the two is just that Type II are designed to absorb impact energy from various angles, not just directly overhead. Type II has a high-density expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam ring and more robust suspension. Type I, on the other hand, is designed only for directly downward force.

Impact isn't the only hazard that has to be considered. In the 1930s, aluminum hardhats were the standard, but had the propensity for delivering electrical current directly to the brain – not exactly a desirable trait. Today we have the class system from ANSI Z89.1 that gives additional classifications to define if a hard hat is appropriate for work around electrical hazards. The class system gives the following ratings:

  • Class C (Conductive) are not designed to withstand electricity
  • Class G (General) are tested to withstand up to 2,000 volts
  • Class E (Electrical) are tested to withstand up to 20,000 volts

Additional conditioning can be applied to hardhats to make them suitable for specific environments. Extra performance capabilities will be indicated on the labeling:

  • “LT” indicates the hats have been tested in extreme low temperatures down to -30°C (-22°F)
  • HT” indicates high temperature is tested up to 60°C (140°F)
  • “HV” means that the hardhats meets additional high visibility requirements

(Learn about 4 Key Standards That Apply to High-Visibility Clothing.)

Jerry Seinfeld once riffed that at a certain height, a helmet is wearing you for protection. It's true that a helmet might not save you from a significant fall, nor is that its primary purpose, yet there are designs more appropriate for working at heights. Some hardhats can have a simple chin strap attached to keep them in place. Others are designed as helmets for occupations like tower climbers, line workers, and wind/cellular technicians with an incorporated and adjustable chin strap system, and more closely resemble rock climbing/caving helmets than conventional hardhats.

As with all PPE, and hazard control in general, determining the right head protection starts with a proper hazard assessment. Based on the hazards associated with the job in question, you can determine the properties that your head protection needs to have.

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Written by Daniel Clark | Safety and Quality Management System Specialist

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Daniel Clark is the founder and President of Clark Health and Safety Ltd., providing safety and quality consultation across various industries in Calgary, Alberta. Daniel has a Bachelor of Science degree, certification in health and safety, certificates in both CAD design and CNC, auditing certifications and the designation of Canadian Registered Safety Professional. Being raised and practicing in Calgary, the heart of Canada’s energy industry, most of Daniel’s career has been energy related. He has performed safety and quality roles from field supervision to office-based administration and management. Daniel’s consulting business has worked with organizations offering engineering services, restoration, pipeline, environmental, manufacturing and food service.

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