OHS Canada Magazine

Hard hats, hard choices: Head protection works, but only if worn properly

February 21, 2024
By Gail J. Cohen

Photo: freeman98589/Adobe Stock

Driving along Richmond Street in downtown Toronto the other day, two men were out on the street acting as flag people to allow a concrete mixer to safely exit a high-rise construction site.

It was a cold day and both men had their hard hats precariously balanced atop toques and the pulled-up hoods of their sweatshirts.

Those hard hats were unlikely to provide much protection if something were to fall on their heads. Hats that don’t fit tightly enough — so they’re harder to put on and off than a baseball cap — won’t provide protection if they just come off on impact or if a worker falls, said Remi Badra, product manager of head protection at manufacturer PIP Canada.

Anything worn under a hard hat should also be approved by the manufacturer, said Badra, and needs to be relatively thin and tight.

“If the manufacturer approves them, it is because they have tested the fit and have ensured that the hat will continue to pass the CSA requirements,” he said.


No matter what the safety rules or requirements are, if a hard hat doesn’t fit well or isn’t comfortable for the worker, they’re less likely to wear one, says Mike Russo, owner of health and safety consultancy WorkBright. To spur on compliance, some companies now have workers test out different hard hat options to get feedback before making a purchasing decision on what works best for them in their particular circumstance.

Hard hats today are being designed for a secure and comfortable fit, with multiple adjustment points including ratchet suspensions and straps, said Leslie Molin, personal safety market segment manager at equipment distributor Levitt Safety.

Russo said he analyzed 80,000 client orders from Ontario government health inspectors in 2022 and the No. 1 compliance issue in workplaces involved hard hats.
Of course, the biggest problem, he said, was workers not wearing hard hats at all. Workers, first of all, have to be advised that wearing head protection is a company policy but it’s almost more important for the company to monitor the use of that protection. Supervisors are pivotal to observate, remind, and enforce those policies.

“The supervisor is an extremely important pivotal role, but they also need support from the owner of the company, [especially] if it is a small company, to ensure that the expectations are set for the types of PPE that are required,” said Russo.

Workers also need to know what to watch out for. Orientation in their workplaces is key to understanding the hazards their heads may face, such as protruding objects, electrical, or materials falling from above, said Russo.

Wearing too much under a hard hat in winter is a common mistake workers make, but there are many user errors that detract from the effectiveness of wearing a hard hat.

One of the biggest: not storing a hard hat properly. They’re often left in cars or on dashboards, which results in damaging UV exposure, said Badra. They should be stored in a clean location away from extreme temperatures and direct sunlight, said Molin.

While it may be fun and look cool, covering a hard hat in stickers can be problematic. Chemicals in the adhesive can degrade the hat’s plastic but they will also cover up any cracks or damage to the hat, said Russo. Many workplaces don’t permit stickers on their hard hats for this reason.

Molin noted that daily inspections for wear and tear often aren’t done. Every day workers should check their hard hats for brittleness, cracks, dents, frayed straps, or damage to the wheel or slip ratchet mechanism, she said.

In addition to the issues with winter gear, Russo said, baseball hats should never be worn under a hard hat because they’ll also affect the suspension.
Mix-and-match add-on accessories like visors or hearing protection that aren’t approved for that manufacturer’s gear can also compromise safety, said Molin.

Some workers even try to store safety glasses or other small items inside their hard hats between the suspension and the shell, said Russo.

“If there is impact, the gap between the suspension and the hardhat is so important because that’ll slow down the impact and if there are materials in that gap, it kind of defeats the purpose,” he said.

A mistake that companies often make, that can lead to individuals compounding safety challenges, is not assessing use requirements before providing hard hats.

Welders are a perfect example, said Russo. They often wear their hard hat backwards, which is fine if the manufacturer has tested and approved it for that purpose, but is a problem if it hasn’t.

Molin noted that hats approved to be worn backwards will have a “reverse donning arrow” symbol inside.

When it comes to choosing hard hats, workers and companies must conform to the classes approved by the CSA and in each jurisdiction. Ontario, for instance, requires Class E hard hats that provide head protection against high-voltage conductors. But there’s also the option for Type 1 (crown only) or Type 2 (crown, sides, and back).

Everyone’s familiar with the standard hard hat style, with the small visor in the front, but there are a few new developments in technology and design.
MSA Safety, for example, has developed the V-Gard C1, said Molin. It features a full brim and uses thermal barrier technology to keep the inside of the hard hat 11°C cooler in sunny weather, making it the coolest hard hat on the market.

So-called “safety helmets” are also becoming more widespread, said Russo. They look more like climbing helmets and are made of lightweight materials and have a chin strap, which helps keep the helmets in place in case of trips and falls, especially from heights.

These newer styles though are costlier than traditional hard hats.

“Some workplaces have said, ‘Before we make a decision, we want to see objective data to substantiate the need for a safety helmet over a traditional hardhat,’” said Russo.

Gail J. Cohen is a Toronto-based freelance journalist. 


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