Hard hats are synonymous with construction. From emojis to motivational posters to icons like Bob the Builder, the quickest way to identify construction workers has been via their brightly colored headgear.
But, some contractors have begun a shift in the name of safety: swapping hard hats for helmets, which they say better protect workers.
"It's interesting that in construction, we have an innovative bunch of problem solvers who are out there everyday solving issues,” said Brian Jones, chief operating officer for Lexington, Kentucky-based Gray Construction. “But with the hard hat, the first plastic one was 1960, and it's largely the same today. So 60 years later, [we’ve had] zero innovation when it comes to the hard hat.”
In addition to Gray, major players in the industry, such as Clark and DPR, made the shift to helmets years ago. Despite some worker resistance to a new type of personal protective equipment, construction leaders who have made the switch have said it was the right decision, and are now mandating their use from workers, trade partners and subcontractors.
What’s the difference?
“Just like technology has afforded great leaps in cordless tools, laser levels and robotics, the hard hat as a personal protection tool has also seen great improvements in design, suspensions, materials — leather, aluminum, plastic and carbon fiber — and more,” said Greg Sizemore, vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development for Associated Builders and Contractors.
Traditional hard hats are Type I safety compliant: They protect workers from falling objects landing directly on top of the wearer’s head. Type II compliant helmets, on the other hand, also have padding to protect from impact on the sides of the head, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
This makes helmets ideal protection against falls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Falls, slips and trips killed 390 construction workers in 2021, more than any other cause, according to the most recent data available.
Protecting the head from both the sides and the front can make a big difference when a worker falls, by lessening the blow that could cause a traumatic brain injury, according to the CDC.
Often, head injuries result from slips, trips or falls from 6 feet or less — meaning they could happen to anyone on the jobsite, regardless of the work they perform, according to Ryan Barnes founder and CEO at Studson, a Lake Oswego, Oregon-based helmet provider.
Lateral impacts to the side of the head — such as those from falls or sports activities — can cause rotational accelerations in the brain, which can lead to concussions, according to the CDC. Type II headgear can help prevent that.
A November report from NIOSH published on the CDC website found the construction industry has the greatest number of both fatal and nonfatal work-related TBIs among U.S. industries. From 2003 to 2010, 2,210 construction workers died as a result of a TBI (or about 2.6 per 100,000 full time equivalent workers).
“Now the transition to the hard helmet from the hard hat is gaining ground, and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” Sizemore said.
Making the change
Gray Construction began the process of swapping its hard hats to helmets about four years ago, when Jones attended an event in Washington, D.C.
There, Jones said he heard an owner of a structural engineering company claim that, had a helmet been used at the time of a jobsite collapse, it could have prevented a fatality or traumatic brain injury.
“That was so impactful for me,” he said.
Construction helmets currently cost more than hard hats, due to the smaller number of suppliers, Jones said. With time, he predicts costs will go down, which will lead to more adoption.
Bethesda, Maryland-based Clark Construction started shifting to helmets in 2017, which it claims made it the first general contractor to do so.
When Clark first adopted helmets, only a few retailers offered them, said Seth Randall, regional safety director for Clark’s Infrastructure Group. Jones said Gray experienced the same. Now, more than 10 national suppliers offer them, Randall said. Retailers offering Type II helmets include Studson, Grainger and Lift.
Education and mandates
Ned Brown, Gray Construction’s safety director, acknowledged that getting workers to consistently wear PPE of any kind can pose a challenge, especially when it’s new.
"With any change of policy that's going to change the look, the feel, just the overall state of the construction worker, you're going to have a little pushback,” Brown said. Nonetheless, he compared it to a policy Gray enacted six years ago that mandated glove use, which is now an issue-free practice on Gray jobs.
Marc Ness, self-perform work leader for Redwood City, California-based DPR Construction, said “there will always be challenges to PPE compliance.” That’s part of why the contractor planned its shift to helmets over a 12-month period, starting a dialogue with employees and partners.
“Before making any changes, we spent a considerable amount of time educating our teams and piloting different helmets so we could test efficacy and comfort, gathering feedback along the way,” Ness said. “Doing so allowed us to gradually introduce helmets and ensure our employees understood the reasoning behind our decision.”
Even if the change causes some friction, Sizemore said eventually, “craft professionals will embrace what the industry gives them or requires of them, and it is time to begin the journey from hard hats to helmets.”
Randall said on “multiple occasions” the helmet has made a difference for a worker’s safety.
“We have had employees struck by cars in work zones, fall from heights and slip from walking-working surfaces, but the helmet provided the necessary protection and minimized or eliminated serious head injuries,” Randall said.
As more major contractors mandate them for their workers and trade partners, helmets may increasingly become the norm, or close to it. Jones emphasized the need to continue to evaluate PPE, even iconic headwear that’s existed seemingly forever.
"I think the most important thing is we recognize in the industry that helmets can save lives and prevent injuries in a very dangerous occupation,” Jones said. “And if it prevents one, it's well worth the investment.”