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Health and Safety

Construction hard hats

Michael Smithby
NBS Information Specialist

Building site regulations require that suitable head protection should be provided and worn at all times, where there is a risk of injury. The site hard hat is cheap, mass-produced and unflattering, though it is the main image used to promote safety. This article discusses the rules surrounding hard hats and their use on UK construction sites.

Hard hat origins

US manufacturer Bullard claims to have invented the construction hard hat at the end of the 19th century as a safety helmet for miners. The firm started out as a mine supplies business in 1898, producing the 'hard-boiled hat'. Bullard claims that, during the building of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s, it was asked by the project engineer to adapt its hat for site workers.

British manufacturer Centurion challenges Bullard's claim, saying it too has been manufacturing the headgear since the late 19th century, and claims that the design was adopted from army pith helmets.

When should hard hats be worn?

The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 (as amended) requires that suitable head protection, normally safety helmets (hard hats), should be provided and worn whenever there is a risk of injury. Employees must be provided with hard hats and the employer must decide when, where and how they should be worn.

Safety helmets, as outlined by the regulations, must always be worn in designated 'hard hat' areas. Only turban-wearing Sikhs are exempt from these requirements. The regulations do not require head protection to be provided to people who are not undertaking construction work - for example, those delivering goods to a site, or site visitors. However, employers and those self-employed persons engaged in construction work should require visitors to wear suitable head protection if there is a foreseeable risk of head injury.

Duties of employees and the self-employed

Employees must wear their hard hats properly and follow the instructions of their employer or the site rules. The regulations state that employees should take care of their hard hats and not misuse them, and that any defects or problems should be reported promptly.

The regulations also state that if hard hats are not provided, self-employed workers must supply their own, and follow the rules for wearing them as if they were employees.

Selection of suitable hard hats

The design of the hard hat has not improved much over the last century, especially when compared to other safety wear. Its two-inch peak, originally designed to protect the nose and forehead, causes problems for workers on ladders and for scaffolders, as the peak restricts line of sight; and safety problems can be exacerbated when workers wear their hats baseball-cap-style, with the peak facing backwards.

A properly fitting hard hat should have the right shell size for the wearer and feature an easily adjustable headband, nape and chin strap. Comfort of the hat can be improved by:

  • A flexible headband contoured both vertically and horizontally to fit the forehead
  • An absorbent sweatband that is easy to clean or replace
  • Textile cradle straps
  • Chin straps (when fitted) which fit around the ears and are fitted with smooth, quick-release buckles which don't dig into the skin.

Whenever possible, a hard hat should not hinder the work being done. For example, a hard hat with little or no peak is useful in allowing unrestricted upward vision for a scaffold erector.

Hats should also be compatible with any other personal protective equipment, e.g. ear defenders or eye protectors.


Any new head protection bought should be CE-marked and must be maintained in good condition at all times. Construction hard hats should:

  • Be stored in a safe place (on a peg or in a cupboard on site)
  • Not be stored in direct sunlight or in excessively hot, humid conditions
  • Be checked regularly for signs of damage or deterioration
  • Have defective parts replaced (if the model allows this)
  • Have the sweatband cleaned regularly or replaced.

Before any hard hat is issued to another person, it should be inspected to ensure it is serviceable and thoroughly cleaned in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions; the sweatband should always be cleaned or replaced.

Damage to, and replacement of, hard hats

Damage to the outer shell of a hard hat can occur when:

  • Objects fall onto it
  • It strikes against a fixed object
  • It is dropped or thrown.

In addition, certain chemicals can weaken the plastic of the shell, leading to rapid deterioration in shock absorption or penetration resistance. Chemicals that should be avoided include aggressive cleaning agents or solvent based adhesives and paints. Where names or other markings need to be applied using adhesives, advice should be sought from the manufacturer.

Normally, head protection should be replaced at intervals recommended by the manufacturer. They will also need replacing when the harness is damaged or if it is likely that the shock absorption or penetration resistance has deteriorated; for example, when the shell has received a severe impact, if deep scratches occur, or if the shell gains any visible cracks.

As a general guide, HSE advises that hard hats should be replaced three years after manufacture, but suggests checking this with the manufacturer also.

How old is my hard hat?

Below are some example images of different date stamps. Each helmet, when manufactured, has a year and approximate month of manufacture stamped onto the inside of the shell near the peak for easy reading.

Hard hat arrow stamp

In the image above, the arrow in the stamp points to the month and the year overlays the arrow. So the arrow points to 9 and the number 04 means that the helmet was manufactured in September 2004.

Hard hat CE stamp

In this image, above, the 07 represents the year 2007. There are then four segments, two at the top and two at the bottom of the year number, representing the four quarters of the year. In the image the top two segments have dots in them, which means that this hat was manufactured in the second quarter of the year; between April and June 2007.

Further information

Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989

L 102 – Construction (head protection) regulations 1989. Guide on regulations (2nd edition)

INDG 174 - Short guide to the personal protective equipment at work regulations 1992

L25 - Personal protective equipment at work (2nd edition)

Causal factors in construction accidents (HSE research report 156:2003)
This study aimed to collect rich, detailed data on the full range of factors involved in a large sample of construction accidents, and by using this information, describe the processes of accident causation, including the contribution of management, project, site and individual factors.

Related NBS information:


Selected links:


June 2014 (article originally published October 2011)


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