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January 19, 2024

OSHA safety and health bulletin on safety helmets in the workplace

On Nov. 22, 2023, OSHA provided a Safety and Health Information Bulletin (SHIB) on the use of safety helmets in the workplace. The SHIB provides the key differences between safety helmets and traditional hard hats. The SHIB also describes the advancements in design, materials, and protective features that help to protect a worker’s entire head.

The SHIB provides instructions for properly inspecting and storing head protection, whether it’s a safety helmet or a traditional hard hat. With a thorough understanding of the benefits and capabilities of head protection options, employers and workers can make informed decisions on which to use.

This SHIB is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations. The SHIB is advisory in nature and informational in content, and it is intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace.

Background

The significance of head protection in hazardous work environments cannot be overstated. For decades, traditional hard hats have been the go-to choice for protecting workers’ heads. Made of rigid materials like high-density polyethylene, traditional hard hats provide a basic level of protection. However, as technology and scientific understanding of head injuries have advanced, safety helmets now provide further improvements to enhance worker safety and reduce the risk of severe head trauma.

One of the differences between traditional hard hats and safety helmets lies in their construction materials. While hard hats are made of hard plastics, safety helmets incorporate a combination of materials, including lightweight composites, fiberglass, and advanced thermoplastics. These materials not only enhance impact resistance but also reduce the overall weight of the helmet, reducing neck strain and improving comfort during extended use. In addition, all safety helmets include a chin strap that, when worn properly, maintains the position of the safety helmet in the event of a slip, trip, or fall.

Moreover, safety helmets can incorporate an array of additional features designed to address specific workplace risks. Many models include add-on face shields or goggles to protect against projectiles, dust, and chemical splashes. They may also have built-in hearing protection and communication systems to facilitate clear communication in noisy environments, enabling workers to stay connected and safe. However, head protection with integrated technology may not be suitable for some workplaces.

Employers should evaluate workplace hazards to determine the most appropriate head protection for each situation. If head protection is needed for the job, employers should consider investing in better head protection with safety helmets to better protect their workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, head injuries accounted for 5.8% of nonfatal occupational injuries involving days away from work.

Use of safety helmets on the job

Employers must conduct a hazard assessment at their job sites and, based on the workplace hazards, determine whether head protection is necessary. When head protection is needed, employers should consider using safety helmets instead of traditional hard hats so that employees are best protected against occupational head injuries.

Recommended uses for safety helmets include:

  • Construction sites: For construction sites, especially those with high risks of falling objects and debris, impacts from equipment, or slips, trips, and falls, safety helmets have enhanced impact resistance and additional features that offer superior protection compared to the components and construction of traditional hard hats.
  • Oil and gas industry: In these sectors, where workers face multiple hazards, including potential exposure to chemicals and severe impacts, safety helmets with additional features can provide comprehensive protection.
  • Working from heights: For tasks or jobs that involve working from heights, safety helmets offer protection of the entire head and include features that prevent the safety helmet from falling off.
  • Electrical work: For tasks involving electrical work or proximity to electrical hazards, safety helmets with nonconductive materials (Class G and Class E) provide protection to prevent electrical shocks. However, some traditional hard hats also offer electrical protection.
  • High-temperature environments: In high temperatures or where there is exposure to molten materials, safety helmets with advanced heat-resistant properties can provide additional protection to workers.
  • Specialized work environments: Jobs that require integrated face shields, hearing protection, or communication devices benefit from safety helmets designed with these features or the ability to add them.
  • Specific regulatory requirements: Where safety helmets are mandated by regulations or industry standards, employers must comply with these requirements to ensure worker safety compliance.
  • Low-risk environments: Even in settings with no overhead hazards, safety helmets will provide comprehensive protection, especially if the risks become more severe.

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Storage and evaluation

Properly storing head protection is crucial to maintain its structural integrity and prevent damage, ensuring it functions effectively when needed. Inspecting head protection, such as safety helmets, before each use helps identify signs of wear, damage, or expiration, ensuring that they are in optimal condition and can provide the necessary protection to reduce the likelihood of head injuries.

Employees should always refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines for care, use, and storage. The following are additional recommendations on how employees can properly care for head protection:

  • Maintain before storing. After each use, employees should clean the exterior of their head protection with mild soap and water. They should ensure there is no dirt, debris, or chemicals that could compromise the head protection’s structural integrity. Once cleaned, the head protection should air-dry in a cool, dry place. The head protection should be prevented from exposure to direct sunlight, extreme temperatures, or corrosive substances during storage. Employees should not store their head protection in their cars, where they may be exposed to extreme temperatures.
  • Inspect the shell and suspension system. Before using the head protection, the employee should carefully inspect the outer shell for cracks, dents, or other signs of damage. Their fingers should be run over the surface to check for any irregularities. Similarly, the suspension system (headband and chin strap) must be examined for wear and tear, ensuring it is securely attached to the shell and free from any signs of damage.
  • Check for labels and certification marks. Employees must look for labels and certification marks inside the head protection. These indicate that the head protection meets the necessary safety standards and requirements. Employees should check that the labels are legible and not tampered with.
  • Verify the date of manufacture. The date of manufacture must be located on the head protection, typically imprinted on the inside. Head protection has a limited lifespan and using expired head protection may compromise its protective capabilities. Employees should refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines for the recommended lifespan of their specific head protection model.
  • Examine accessories and attachments. If an employee’s head protection has additional accessories or attachments, such as face shields, goggles, or earmuffs, they should inspect them for damage or signs of wear. Employees should make sure any attachments are securely fastened to the head protection and functioning correctly.
  • Check for proper fit. Before an employee uses head protection, they should ensure it fits comfortably and securely on their head. They should adjust the suspension system to achieve a snug fit without excessive pressure points. Head protection should not be too loose or too tight.
  • Evaluate for damaged or loose parts. While wearing the head protection, employees should gently shake their heads to check for any loose or rattling components. If an employee notices anything unusual or suspects any damaged parts, they should refrain from using the head protection and have it inspected by a qualified person.
  • Inspect interior cushioning. Some head protection features additional cushioning or padding inside for extra comfort and impact absorption. Employees should inspect this interior padding for wear or compression. If it shows signs of deterioration, employees should contact the manufacturer for replacement options.
  • Assess previous impact damage. If an employee’s head protection has experienced an impact or been subjected to a significant force, it should be retired immediately, even if no visible damage is evident. Head protection is designed for single-use impact protection and may not retain its full effectiveness after an incident.
  • Keep records. Employers should have employees maintain a record of each inspection, noting the date, any findings, and actions taken. Regularly document the date of purchase and any relevant information about the head protection to track its lifespan accurately. This is recommended for all personal protective equipment.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers must comply with hazard-specific safety and health standards and regulations promulgated by OSHA or by a state with an OSHA-approved State Plan.

Important resources

Brought to you by Christensen Group Insurance. This Legal Update is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel for legal advice. ©2023 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved.

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