Safety professionals are used to contemplating worst-case scenarios, but it was a worker who had a front-row seat to the real thing at a southern Ontario construction site in early 2011.
Fortunately, worst turned to best. A 3.5-metre-long aluminum beam weighing approximately 30 kilograms fell over a fence at the construction site, plummeting eight storeys and striking the worker on the head and right shoulder. The worker was taken to a hospital, where he was listed in serious but stable condition.
The responding police officers credited the worker’s headwear with saving his life.
A hardhat’s suspension and shell work together to absorb an impact and dissipate the associated energy, so that very little is transferred to the wearer.
As always, comfort is critically important to prevent workers from removing gear that can only protect as intended when worn. But maximizing comfort — and safety — sometimes requires some adjustment.
To secure and adjust a hardhat, a wearer will use a suspension adjustment mechanism — the two most common being pin-lock and ratchet systems. The former employs a “snap and lock” system that fits more loosely, but requires removal of the hardhat to make any adjustments; the latter does not, with adjustments made simply by turning a knob.
John Greer, president of Dynamic Safety International in Laval, Quebec, estimates that about 25 years ago, 80 per cent of hardhats on the market used pin-lock systems and 20 per cent ratchet systems. Today, Greer says, that has reversed, with ratchet suspension systems accounting for the vast majority.
At his company, Greer says, the geometry of the hardhat shell and the ratchet suspension system were both designed to come lower on the head, thereby enhancing user comfort.
The choice of suspension system, among many other considerations, will be dictated by the results of a risk assessment. Numerous factors must be taken into account, including the following:
— if a user requires impact and penetration protection to only the crown of the head or to the sides as well;
— whether a cap-style or full-brim hardhat is needed;
— what hardhat material is best suited for the particular work and environment;
— which accessories the hat will need to accommodate;
— if availability of various colour choices (including high-visibility) is preferred; and
— whether job demands require the use of a reverse-orientation hardhat.
There are two types of CSA Group-approved hardhats: Type 1 offers impact and penetration protection to the crown only; Type 2 provides crown and lateral (side) impact and penetration protection.
Some provincial jurisdictions have work-related requirements that specify the use of CSA-approved headwear. For example, Greer points out, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island moved exclusively to Type 2 hardhats years ago.
For the rest of the country, he suggests, “it’s been a bit voluntary on whether they did a job assessment or hazard assessment, whether their workers wear Type 1 or Type 2.”
The main types of hardhats are broken down into three separate classes related to dielectric protection: E, G and C. Class E provides the highest protection (against as much as 20,000 volts of electric current), while Class G has a 2,200-volt electric-current rating and Class C offers no dielectric protection. Claudio Dente, president of Dentec Safety Specialists Inc. in Newmarket, Ontario, reports that “most people in all applications use an E,” and the majority of hardhats on the market are certified as such.
Of course, electricity is not the only on-the-job hazard to be considered. With summer almost here, those working outdoors will certainly need protection from the sun.
While full-brim hardhats are traditionally used in mining and the oil and gas sector, more utilities and construction companies are warming up to them, as they offer workers some protection against ultraviolet rays around the ears, neck and face, Greer reports.
Consider a paving crew toiling away for hours on end in the dead of summer. There will be heat stress when working on “thousand-degree [Fahrenheit] asphalt in 100-F sun,” Greer says. Full-brim hats will offer some relief, he adds.
Dente notes that a hardhat can become softer in hot environments, while it can grow brittle in cold temperatures. “That’s part of your hazard analysis, whether temperature is a concern,” he says.
Temperature is among the factors that will steer workers towards the best choice of hardhat material. A common material used for the safety gear is high-density polyethylene (HDPE), a good fit in light of its cost-effectiveness and versatility.
But the material is not without competitors. Dente points out that a typical Type 2 hat made of HDPE costs about $35, while a fibreglass version may carry a price tag of $100 or more.
It all comes down to job demands. Welders are an example of an occupation that needs to consider both heat protection and a reverse orientation.
Of course, there are other tasks in which safety is advanced by going backwards. Dente points to ladder climbing, confined spaces or jobs that require looking up or into tunnels.
As a team
Workers often need to wear a number of pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) together. Face shields and welding helmets are common accessories to hardhats and may be attached with hinges, snaps or other types of attachment systems. When selecting a mounting system, it is wise to consider frequency of use, ease of use, durability, flexibility and compatibility with different products.
A worker may also need protection from noise. Earmuffs are another common addition to hardhats, many of which incorporate slots on the sides where cap-mounted muffs can be attached.
Although most hardhat materials have not changed much over the past three or four decades, in recent years, vents and the ability to accommodate or incorporate PPE have been added to hat designs.
Considering how often athletes suffer concussions, combined with the burgeoning medical knowledge in this area, Greer says it is time to look at the technology used in bicycle and hockey helmets and see what can be borrowed and incorporated into hardhat design.
Jason Contant is a former editor of Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News.