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Hard hats and worker safety

An icon of the hard-working construction and mining industries, the hard hat is a surprisingly recent invention. In fact, the first version of the hard hat didn't appear until the early 1900s – a hundred years after the start of the Industrial Revolution.

The E.D. Bullard company of San Francisco, best known for making the carbide lamps used by miners during the late 1800s, lays claim to manufacturing the first hard hat. Early versions were called "hard boiled hats" – a nod to the process using steam and glue to layers of canvas – and were inspired by the doughboy helmet worn by American soldiers during World War I. In contrast to metal helmets, however, these leather brimmed hats were lightweight, strong and didn't conduct electricity. Patented in 1919 by Bullard, the hard boiled hats were marketed as a means for miners to affix their carbide lamps while on the job, but that they increased workers' safety an obvious and welcomed added benefit.

It did not take long for workers and their employers to recognize the advantage of the hard hat and by the mid-20th century, the hard hat's popularity was spreading rapidly. While only anecdotal information exists for the earliest years of the hard hat, a recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that only 16% of on the job injuries were reported by workers wearing hard hats. Such a small percentage of injuries that could not be prevented by hard hats shows just how effective they are and workers and employers were quick to take notice.

It was also during this time that the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) began developing the first safety standards for head and eye protection on the job. By the 1930s, hard hats were a construction site requirement on several historic and high profile projects including the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge.

While popularity of the hardened canvas hats increased, some laborers like bridge workers, whose occupations involved climbing, began clamoring for a hat that provided fundamental protection but without the heft of the hard boiled hat. By 1938, aluminum hard hats (also developed by Bullard) were being produced and became the standard – except in electrical applications, as aluminum conducts electricity. As such, the need for a lightweight, non-conducting hardhat led to the development of fiberglass varieties in the 1940s.

Developments in the plastics industry contributed to further progress toward the creation of what we know as the modern day hard hat. In the 1950s, thermoplastics provided a moldable, lightweight, cost effective alternative.

Today, the most notable difference between the modern hard hat and its hard boiled predecessor is variation. While most hats are made of a high-density polyethylene, they vary in color and in available accessories from sun visors and sweat-wicking liners to radio attachments, walkie-talkies, cameras and pagers. A ventilated version was also approved by ANSI in 1997. Hard hats also come in a variety of colors, which often carry job-site significance. For instance, supervisors or engineers often wear white hard hats, while laborers wear yellow and safety personnel wear red. Those new to the job may be assigned to wear a green hard hat to signify their 'green' position on the crew.

Worker safety helmets
To those of us outside the construction industry, these three hats may just look like multicolored plastic, but they convey information that can be valuable in case of emergencies.
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