The Hard Knocks of Head Protection–Hard Hats & Suspensions: What You Don’t Know Might Surprise You!

Hard hats and suspensions are hardly a glamourous safety topic to discuss.  Most would find it boring and straightforward—hard hats protect the head, ho-hum.  However, as with most products designed to provide personal safety, there are a few things one needs to consider to increase compliance and safety at your workplace!

  1. The manufacturer is responsible for testing and marking applicable standards on their hard hats.  Organizations like ANSI, CSA & CEN create the standards and test methods.  OSHA may refer to these standards when setting safety requirements. It is the manufacturer that must ensure their designs comply.  They are responsible for the testing, marking and certification of their products to meet the relevant standards for the markets they are selling to.  It is imperative that you know what standards you need to meet and that the product choice you make meets those standards.  
  2. The most common hard hats are designed to provide top of head protection only.  Consider alternatives if side impact or the hard hat falling off the worker is a concern.  Recently there has been considerable movement toward mountaineering style climbing helmets and hard hat/helmets with chin straps.  There is considerable evidence that these products do provide a more complete head protection program versus simply falling object protection from an overhead hazard.  By design and use of the chin strap, these products protect the worker if involved in a fall and/or many other types of impact to the head. They may also increase production due to being secured to a worker at height and not falling off creating a need to recover.  Understand that not all these helmets are created equal. They too are tested to the standards as referenced above and it is imperative that the user makes a product decision based on the protection needed for their unique hazards.   
  3. Most manufacturers recommend replacing hard hat suspensions, at a minimum, ANNUALLY.  The suspension is what provides the wearer protection.  The helmet is literally just an empty shell without a proper, fully functional suspension designed specific to the hat by the manufacturer.  Many user’s manuals require daily inspection of the hard hat and recommend replacing suspensions upon failure of this inspection or, at a minimum, once per year.   Check the suspension for fraying, tears or broken pieces. This means that if a worker sustains an injury due to a failed suspension, the manufacturer might not be found liable if they can prove the suspension was not replaced per recommendations!  Check the shells for UV degradation, chemical exposure (often marked by a chalky appearance and/or a rigid or soft spot on the helmet).
  4. Manufacturers have a standard “Shelf Life” on their hard hats, which can be 2-10 years depending on the manufacturer! Sorry construction workers! This means that, the old hard hat you’ve been wearing for the last 10-12 years, decorated with stickers from all the jobs you’ve worked, is not compliant! Check with the manufacturer for their specifications then check the date codes found inside most hard hats.  Keep that old hard hat and display it with pride on the trophy shelf in your living room next to all the taxidermy. Or, as is the case with my family, on a dusty shelf in the garage that brings back a lot of memories when I’m doing the monthly clean.
  5. If your hard hat has sustained an impact, it must be replaced, regardless if there is any visible damage. Once a hard hat has sustained an impact the materials may be weakened, even if it looks and feels the same. Replace it right away!

Hard hats and climbing helmets are great tools to prevent head trauma in the workplace, as long as all guidelines are followed! If you’d like more information about improving your hard hat program, please call or email us at 608-273-3520 and