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Health and Safety

Construction hard hats

by Michael Smith
NBS Information Specialist

The universal symbol of construction is loathed by many in the industry; workers complain that they are uncomfortable, restrictive, and make them look silly. This article looks at the rules surrounding hard hats and their use on construction sites.

Hard hat origins

Compulsory on British building sites since March 1990, the hard hat or safety helmet is a cheap, mass-produced and unflattering; it is also the main weapon in the battle to improve safety on sites. However, the design has not changed much for almost a century.

Its origins are as contentious as the opinions about it. US manufacturer Bullard claims to have invented the device 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 Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989 requires that suitable head protection, normally safety helmets, should be provided and worn whenever there is a risk of injury. Unless there is no foreseeable 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 allow an employer to make rules governing when and where hard hats should be worn, but they 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, in order to comply with the general duties under section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA), employers and the self-employed person engaged in construction work should require visitors to wear suitable head protection if there is a foreseeable risk of head injury, other than the risk to those who may accidentally stumble or fall.

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 on site, self-employed workers must supply their own. They must wear them when there is a risk of head injury or when told to do so by someone in control. They also need to follow the site rules, and in addition, maintain and replace their hard hat whenever necessary.

Original guidance issued by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) dealing with hard hats, Personal protective equipment (PPE): Safety helmets (CIS 50) and Head protection for Sikhs wearing turbans - guidance for employers (INDG 262), has been withdrawn, as it is no longer considered current.

Selection of suitable hard hats

Many in the industry feel the design of the hard hat has not improved much over the last century, especially when compared to other safety wear, such as cycle helmets, which seem to have become much lighter and harder. The hard hat's two-inch peak, originally designed to protect the nose and forehead, causes problems for workers on ladders, and scaffolders, as the peak restricts line of sight. 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 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. Chin straps should be provided and used if a job involves work in windy conditions, especially at height, or repeated bending or constantly looking upwards.

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 to indicate that it complies with the Personal Protective Equipment (EU Directive) Regulations 1992, and with BS EN 397:1995 - Specification for industrial safety helmets. They must be maintained in good condition at all times, and 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 the hard hat shell

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 headgear manufacturer.

More recent reporting suggests that international impact-resistance standards might not generally be adequate to protect workers on high-rise buildings, such as those common in areas like Hong Kong and the UAE.

Hard hat replacement

Normally, helmets 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 industrial safety helmets 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.


Both industry best practice and the HSE say that where possible, other measures should be taken first, to reduce or control the risks of construction site injuries.

However, despite all of the other complementary rules and regulations and procedures, accidents do happen; and in the end, whatever it looks like, wearing a hard hat could save your life.

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:

October 2011




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