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Workplace Head Protection: Safety Helmet vs. Hard Hat

You cannot overstate the importance of head protection in the workplace. From bustling construction sites to manufacturing floors humming with activity, hazards to head safety abound. Every year, thousands of workers suffer head injuries, some leading to permanent disabilities or even fatalities.

Understanding the crucial nature of head protection is imperative to promoting head safety in the workplace. In today’s post, we’ll examine the workplace head protection requirements set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). We’ll also take a closer look at safety helmets and hard hats, the two primary safeguards OSHA recommends.

The Importance of Head Protection

The human skull is a remarkable structure that protects the underlying muscles and organs extremely well. The skull is incredibly durable, but not invincible. In a hazardous environment, falling objects, low-hanging structures, or protruding elements pose a constant threat. Head injuries can result in concussions, fractures, traumatic brain injuries, or worse.

Beyond the personal toll, workplace accidents lead to productivity losses, increased insurance premiums, and regulatory fines. Investing in head protection ensures the safety and well-being of your workforce while protecting your bottom line.

OSHA Standards for Head Protection

OSHA mandates head protection under its General Industry Standard (29 CFR 1910.135) and Construction Standard (29 CFR 1926.100) regulations. These standards require employers to assess workplace hazards, provide suitable head protection, ensure proper fit, and enforce usage. Failure to comply can result in penalties and legal liabilities.

Workers who have exposure to electrical conductors must wear protective helmets designed to reduce the hazard of electrical shock. Both standards require head protection to comply with all ANSI/ISEA Z89.1 standards from 2009, 2003, and 1997. They also provide labeling requirements for safety headgear so workers can be sure their helmets remain in compliance.

two men with first aid kit helping fallen worker near electrical panel

ANSI/ISEA Z89.1 Head Protection Classification

ANSI/ISEA Z89.1 classifies head protection into Types and Classes. The Type indicates the part of the head the helmet protects. The Class indicates the level of protection it provides against electrical hazards.

ANSI/ISEA Z89.1: Industrial Head Protection Categories

Type 1
        • Protects the top of the head
        • Common in the United States
        Type 2
        • Protects top and side of head
        • Common in Europe
Class G (General)
    • Protects against up to 2,200 volts
  • Class E (Electrical)
    • Protects against up to 20,000 volts
    Class C (Conductive)
    • No electrical protection

    Labeling Requirements


    Employers must place labels on the inside of helmets. These labels must indicate:

          • Name of Manufacturer
          • Applicable ANSI standard
          • Type & Class
          • Size Range
          • Manufacture Date
          • Hard hats that meet the ANSI Z89.1-2009 requirements must also include the following markings:
          • LT – Low Temperature protection (22°F(-30°C))
          • HV – Meets all HiViz requirements
          • Two curved arrows forming a circle – Hard hat is reversible

    Helmets without these markings may not comply with OSHA standards.

    Essential Tips for Keeping Employee Head Protection in Compliance

    Employees should examine safety helmets inside and out before they put them on, each time they put them on. Employers should replace helmets that show signs of damage or wear such as cracks, nicks, scratches, and fatigue. Heat and exposure to the elements degrade hard hats quickly. Clean the sweatbands inside the helmets regularly.

    yellow and white hard hats stacked next to tape measure on open notebook
    OSHA does not require expiration dates. To keep your head protection equipment in compliance and good working condition, adhere to the following rules of thumb:
          1. Replace the straps/suspension every year
          2. Replace the shell every 5 years

    Neither the OSHA regulations nor ANSI standard addresses proper placement of labels. In a 2009 response to an inquiry, OSHA provided some limited guidance . Sometimes labels or paint on hard hats end up concealing defects or damage and might reduce electrical resistance.

    To avoid this, be careful to place them only according to the instructions from the manufacturer. This will ensure you’re not concealing damage or interfering with the helmet’s protective features.

    Safety Helmets vs. Hard Hats

    Both safety helmets and hard hats provide protection to the head from falling objects, electrical shock, and penetration hazards. Both fall under the guidelines of OSHA and ANSI/ISEA covered above.

    Traditional Hard Hats

    The most common type of hard hat in use today is the V-Gard Helmet, dating back to 1962. This popular design for traditional hard hats protects the top of a worker’s head, but not the sides. It features a suspension system that absorbs impact, protecting the head and neck. Manufacturers make most hard hats with non-conductive high-density polyethylene.

    Type I hard hats are popular because they are the most cost effective option. While providing protection to the top of the head, they provide little protection to the back and sides. They can be prone to falling off the head as well because they typically lack a chin strap. However, some hard hats now include chin straps to prevent this.

    Modern Safety Helmets

    Modern safety helmets incorporate a number of safety features. Like hard hats, they include suspension systems to absorb impact. They provide protection on the top as well as the back and sides of the head.

    They sit lower on the head, with the harness securing lower in the back, creating a more secure and comfortable fit. They also may come with other safety features such as flip down eye protection, ear protection, and chin straps. Some include built in communication systems.

    Safety helmets are also typically lighter weight than hard hats. Manufacturers make them from a combination of lightweight composites such as fiberglass and thermoplastics. This offers better impact resistance while reducing the overall weight.

    three workers in hard hats talking

    OSHA's New Initiative: Transitioning to Safety Helmets

    OSHA has announced a move to have its agents use safety helmets in place of hard hats. By making this transition, OSHA aims to set a precedent for employers nationwide.

    Providing Your Workers Protective Headgear and Training

    Head injuries can result in death or life changing damage. In the Construction and Oil and Gas industries, hazards abound that expose workers’ to the risk of head injury. Is your workplace head protection equipment in reliable working order? To ensure your workers’ protection, it may be time for an upgrade.

    Find options for hard hat and other Personal Protective Equipment training in our online safety course catalog.