The history of head protection

Safety helmets (also known as hard hats) can prevent or minimise injuries to the head and brain, protecting against falling objects or debris, impact with other objects, electric shock and rain. Most head injuries can be avoided if the proper head protection is selected, used and maintained.

Helmets were invented around 2500 BC to protect soldiers’ heads during battles. The first mass-produced versions were worn by Assyrian soldiers around 900 BC and were mainly made from bronze, protecting the wearer from sword blows and arrow strikes.

In the Victorian era, workers such as miners would wear only a canvas cap in the mines, giving them no protection from falling objects. Similarly, a boom period for construction, shipping and engineering at that time, shipbuilders, dock and construction workers had no protective headwear to protect them when working, despite the dangerous work they were doing, although many employers were beginning to consider the wellbeing of their workforces.

For example, contractors William Arrol were noted at the time, as making every effort to look after the welfare of the “Briggers” (construction workers) working on the construction of the Forth Rail Bridge in the 1880s.

However, a description of the clothing worn by the men included “old tweed jackets, mufflers and caps” which although helping to keep out the worst of the Scottish weather, offered little or no protection against falling tools or red-hot metal. Seventy-three fatalities were recorded on that project, many from head injuries.

It was not until the late 1800s, that the Patent Pulp Manufacturing Co Ltd of Thetford in Norfolk, produced the first ever mass-produced hard hat to protect workers; documents from this company are held in the National Archives at Kew. The Patent Pulp Manufacturing Co Ltd manufactured a helmet from pulp which was mixed with lime and fed into formers.

The formed hat was left to dry and then lacquered giving a smooth, if slightly textured, finish and then a steel plate was riveted to the inside of the helmet to give further protection. Although these helmets were groundbreaking, they were somewhat uncomfortable to wear due to the lack of a cradle inside the helmet. The cradle was not invented until about 30 years later in 1919, by an American.

Shipbuilding appears to be the first industry where hard hats were used, as dock workers were in constant danger of being hit by falling objects. The use of hard hats, later to be known by the term safety helmets, then moved into the construction industry.

They were first recorded as a mandatory requirement for construction workers on the Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge projects in the US in the 1930s. They are now a standard piece of safety equipment worldwide.

In Britain, following the death of TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in a motorcycle accident, neurosurgeon Sir Hugh Cairns realised that his life might have been saved had he been wearing a helmet. He began to research and campaign for the use of motorcycle helmets in the UK.

This all led to the first motorcycle standard in 1952 which was followed 2 years later by the first hard hat standard (The Light Duty Safety Helmet Standard) in 1954; both were British Standards.

What is a safety helmet?

Safety helmets are crucial and mandatory on almost all work sites and manual working environments. Industrial safety helmets are the most common and basic form of PPE.

They will have the following components aimed at good protection for the head:

  1. Shell.
  2. Harness.
  3. Headband.

The outer shell is usually made from polyethylene, with the inner harness having a system of strips made from polyethylene or woven bands. The headband has adjustment mechanisms that can change its wearing height and its length to increase stability when worn.

Choosing the right safety helmet

Safety helmets are only required on an as-needed basis, so if a risk assessment does not identify any risks of head injuries, then they need not need be worn. However, different construction sites may operate their own rules, and if a risk assessment has identified the possibility of head injury, then safety helmets are mandatory, regardless of the nature of the construction work, or the size of the project.

Safety helmets used on UK construction sites must be manufactured to British Standard (BS) EN 397, which includes rigorous tests for impact resistance and flame retardance, among others. Any employee or visitor to a construction site should be provided with a safety helmet by either their employer or the main contractor, but self-employed workers (including subcontractors) may need to provide their own.

It is important to take several factors into account when choosing a safety helmet. It is first necessary to identify the task to be carried out by the worker as well as the constraints and risks of the activity that need to be provided for. The level of protection required from a safety helmet varies according to the activity. For example, a construction helmet cannot be used for demolition work because it does not offer the same protection.

No one helmet is perfect for everybody and there are several trade-offs to consider when deciding which is right for a work environment. First is the trade-off between performance and comfort.

High-performance helmets are relatively heavy, and though they offer maximum protection, unsupervised wearers may be tempted to remove the more cumbersome designs, leaving them with no protection at all, so there may be a need to balance protection with comfort to ensure compliance.

Safety helmet colours from January 2017

  1. White – For site managers, competent operatives and vehicle marshals (distinguished by the wearing of a different coloured high-visibility vest).
  2. Black – For site supervisors.
  3. Orange – For slingers and signallers.
  4. Blue – For all other site visitors.