01 November 2014
Last amended on
17 August 2021

Whether involved in building or civil engineering projects, work at onshore or offshore industrial sites, or an occasional visitor, the hard hat – or safety helmet – is an essential item of safety equipment. This article gives a brief overview of the principal features, legislation and guidelines surrounding its maintenance and use.

The importance of wearing a hard hat

Construction work is a high-risk activity, and accidents can occasionally happen even on the most diligent worksites. Head injuries can come from various sources: falling objects, fixed objects like unprotected ends of scaffolding poles or other projections and areas with restricted headroom. Wearing a hard hat can prevent or reduce the severity of a head injury.

To enhance protection, hard hats may also incorporate several valuable features:

  • A peak to prevent dazzling
  • A rain gutter
  • Ventilation holes or replaceable sweatbands
  • Chinstrap or chin guard
  • Removable visor
  • Integrated earmuffs to protect hearing
  • Chemical and heat resistance for working in high-risk environments
  • A worker alert system/ proximity sensor with buzzer alarm mounted on the back of the helmet that uses GPS and RFID technology to help prevent collisions between personnel and machines

What hard hat's colour means

Build UK is the UK construction industry's primary representative organisation, representing over 40% of our industry. They act as the first point of contact for numerous organisations, including the Construction Leadership Council, Institute for Apprenticeships, HSE, and various other government organisations, with partnerships including CITB, Department for Work and Pensions, and the Construction Innovation Hub.

Since January 2017, Build UK has mandated members' construction sites use a specific hard hat colour system. The purpose is to eliminate confusion and make identifying individuals according to their role and safety qualifications easier.

  • Black indicates site supervisors.
  • White is for site managers, competent operatives and vehicle marshals.
  • Slingers and signallers wear orange.
  • Blue is for everyone else, including apprentices and visitors. These individuals shouldn't be working alone or wandering around the site unsupervised.
  • A green hat or sticker signifies a first aider.
  • A red hat or sticker means they are a fire marshal.

It's important to note that, while these colours are the industry recognised standard, some non-Build UK affiliated sites may use different colour coding. For instance, Network Rail only uses white and blue safety helmets on site.

Additional indicators and requirements

  • Coloured high-visibility vests can identify additional roles. For instance, vehicle marshals will wear a white hard hat but use a distinctive coloured vest.
  • Some sites use reflective markings and role-specific decals (e.g., first aiders (green decal) and fire marshals (red decal)).
  • All hard hats used in the UK must be manufactured to BS EN 397.

The law and hard hats

In 2013, hard hats became compulsory under certain circumstances. They and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are considered essential for managing risks that other means cannot control. Legislation and guidance surrounding PPE includes:

    Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 (as amended) Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2016/425 Personal Protective Equipment (Enforcement) Regulations 2018 Regulation 2016/425 and the Personal Protective Equipment (Enforcement) Regulations 2018 (Guidance v4), which applies to equipment supplied from 01 April 2021.

Note that other regulations may trump areas cited above where hard hats are not required. For instance, both the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 and COSHH Regulations 2002 take precedent and hard hats are still mandatory even where other laws have changed.

Debunking ten hard hat myths

  1. I must wear a hard hat every time I visit a building site. Hard hats are only required as needed. If a site risk assessment hasn't identified any head injury risks, then you don't need to wear one unless specific construction site rules dictate otherwise.
  2. I don't need to wear one when on a domestic construction site. That depends on risk assessment findings. If the assessment identifies the potential for a head injury, then hard hats are mandatory regardless of the nature of the construction work or the size of the project.
  3. I only need to wear my hard hat when the site manager is nearby. Hard hats protect you from suffering a potentially fatal head injury. The risk is still there when the site manager isn't.
  4. I can use a hard hat that I acquired abroad. Hard hats used on UK construction sites must be manufactured to BS EN 397, which includes rigorous tests for impact resistance and flame retardance, among others. Foreign hats may not conform to this British Standard or offer the level of protection required, so you cannot use one on a UK project site.
  5. I must wear a hard hat even though it discriminates against my religion. Employment Act 1989, as amended by Section 6 of the Deregulation Act 2015, exempts Sikhs wearing turbans from compulsory hard hat use. However, this is a limited exception and does not extend to areas where head protection is deemed essential or wearing other PPE.
  6. I don't have to provide my hard hat; one will be provided for me. Employees and construction site visitors should be provided with a hard hat by either their employer or the main contractor; however, self-employed workers (including subcontractors) may need to provide their own.
  7. A hard hat is the only safety equipment I need on a construction site. Once again, it depends on the risk assessment findings and what identified hazards exist. Additional equipment may include gloves, steel toe-capped boots, ear defenders, goggles, respirator, high-visibility vest or jacket, or other protection.
  8. I'm only doing a quick task, so I don't need to bother with a hard hat. Accidents happen without warning at any time, with potentially disastrous consequences. You should never take the risk.
  9. All hard hats are colour coded according to job function. While Build UK has made certain colours mandatory for specific jobs and those colours are industry recognised, there will be instances when a construction site operates using its colour system. Therefore, it is always good to check.
  10. My hard hat will last me for as long as I work. At a minimum, you should replace hard hats every five years even if there is no apparent damage. The label inside of the plastic outer shell may also offer specific manufacturer recommendations.

Some hard hats dos and don'ts

  • Do make sure that your hard hat is manufactured to BS EN 397. This should be stamped either on the back or inside of the helmet. There should also be a conformity mark.
  • Don't wear a hard hat if it's damaged.
  • Do check your hard hat regularly for signs of damage, including the inner lining and chin strap.
  • Don't put it down anywhere that it could be damaged or lost.
  • Do make sure that your hard hat fits properly. If it's too loose, then adjust the strap at the back of the internal lining.
  • Don't wear anything else under your hard hat, such as a wool or fleece thermal hat. It could prevent your hat from fitting securely.
  • Do look after your hard hat; it could save your life.
  • Don't wear a hard hat that's been exposed to chemicals; they could weaken the plastic and reduce its strength.
  • Do clean your hat with warm, soapy water.
  • Don't fix non-approved stickers on your hat or write on it.

This piece is based on articles written by Anthony Lymath (2014) and Richard McPartland (2017) for theNBS.com.

Additional reading

An employer's guide to personal protective equipment: Employers are responsible for providing personal protective equipment and ensuring it is used appropriately in the workplace.

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