by Anthony Lymath
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.
Why wear a hard hat?
Even with the best intentions, the fact remains that construction work is a high risk activity and accidents can occasionally happen. Head injuries can come from falling objects; striking fixed objects, such as unprotected ends of scaffolding poles or other projections; or from restricted headroom. Wearing a hard hat can prevent, or at least reduce the severity of, a head injury. They can also incorporate a number of additional features, including:
- A peak, to prevent dazzling
- A rain gutter
- Ventilation holes or replaceable sweat bands
- 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’ – a proximity sensor mounted on the back of the helmet, utilizing GPS and RFID technology to prevent near misses between personnel and machines (activates a buzzer warning alarm).
The law and hard hats
Hard hats have been around for years, but it was only relatively recently that their use became compulsory under certain circumstances. Hard hats – and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in general – are regarded as a ‘last resort’ for use where risks cannot be controlled by other means. The Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989 were the enforcing rules, but these were revoked on 6 April 2013, since when hard hat use has been governed by:
- the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 (as amended), and
- the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2002.
Note, however, that these don’t apply where requirements are contained within other regulations, such as the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 or the COSHH Regulations 2002. So even though the law may have changed, the requirement to wear a hard hat has not.
10 myths about hard hats
- “I have to wear a hard hat every time I visit a building site”
Hard hats are only required on an as-needed basis. So if a risk assessment doesn’t identify any risks of head injuries, then they shouldn’t need to be worn. However, different construction sites may operate their own rules, and noisy operations may mean that ear defenders are needed, for example.
- “Hard hats don’t need to be worn on domestic construction sites”
If a risk assessment has identified the possibility of head injury, then hard hats are mandatory – regardless of the nature of the construction work, or the size of the project.
- “I only need to wear my hard hat when the site manager is nearby”
Hard hats are there to protect you from potentially fatal head injuries. The risk of injury isn’t reduced when the site manager is out of sight – in fact, it’s probably increased.
- “I can use a hard hat that I got from overseas”
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.
- “I have to wear a hard hat, even though it discriminates against my religion”
Sikhs wearing turbans are exempted from compulsory hard hat use, by the Employment Act 1989. Section 11 of the Act sets out the civil liability position, while Section 12 protects against racial discrimination.
- “I don’t have to provide my own hard hat, one will be provided for me”
Any employee or visitor to a construction site should be provided with a hard hat by either their employer or the main contractor, but self-employed workers (including subcontractors) need to provide their own.
- “A hard hat is the only safety equipment I need on a construction site”
It depends on the circumstances. If a risk assessment has identified specific hazards, then certain PPE – or Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) – may be needed. This could include gloves, steel toe-capped boots, ear defenders, goggles, respirator, high-visibility vest or jacket or other body protection. If in doubt, check with the site manager.
- “I’m only doing a quick job, so I don’t need to bother putting my hard hat on”
It only takes a moment for an accident to happen, with potentially disastrous consequences. Never take the chance.
- “Hard hats are colour coded according to your job function”
There are no de-facto rules or legislation about hard hat colour. However, different construction sites may operate their own rules (for example green for first-aiders, red for rescue personnel, etc.). Build UK moved to consolidate safety helmet colours on its members' sites in January 2017.
- “My hard hat will last me for as long as I work”
Hard hats should be replaced at least every 5 years, even if they haven’t been damaged. Check the label inside the plastic outer shell, for specific manufacturer recommendations.
Hard hats – some dos and don’ts
- Do make sure that your hard hat has been manufactured to BS EN 397. This should be stamped either on the back of the helmet, or on the inside. It should also be CE marked.
- Don’t wear a hard hat that has been damaged.
- Do check your hard hat regularly, for signs of damage – including the inner lining and chin strap, if it has one.
- 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 properly, and could come off in an accident.
- Do look after your hard hat – it could save your life.
- Don’t wear a hard hat that’s been exposed to any chemicals – they could weaken the plastic and reduce its strength.
- Do clean your hat with warm, soapy water.
- Don’t fix stickers to your hat, or write on it.
What to read next...
What colours are safety helmets (hard hats) on construction sites?
In a bid to make construction sites safer a new colour coded system of safety helmets came into force for Build UK member organisations in January 2017 - with white becoming the most common colour on construction sites.