While others design them, it is the construction worker that builds them, and inherent in the building of a structure are multiple factors that predispose the worker to risk for injury. With so much at stake the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), a national public health agency created by Congress in 1970, sets and enforces safety and health standards to prevent and reduce workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths by creating safe work environments. The agency works to achieve these goals by providing training, outreach, education, cooperative programs, partnerships and compliance assistance targeted at those areas where workers are at risk and enforces the law against those who would put workers at risk.
Of all the injuries that can occur while on the job, it is a traumatic head injury that can have the most impactful and long-lasting effects. According to the Centers for Disease control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1.7 million people sustain a brain injury each year in the United States, leaving over 125,000 permanently disabled. And according to the OSHA, construction work is the industry that has the highest risk for and occurrence of traumatic brain injuries, with fatalities from falls ranking as the leading cause of death and being hit from a falling object ranking as the third cause of death among construction workers.
To protect against these potential hazards OSHA has established a hierarchy of controls. The first is engineering controls, the second administration controls, and the third is Personal Protective Equipment. The use of protective head gear, typically known as safety hard hats or helmets, is the primary protection equipment from traumatic brain injury should an accident occur. These protective hard hats or helmets must comply with ANSI Z89.1 (Standard for Industrial Head Protection) and are to:
- Provide protection from impact and penetration hazards caused by falling objects
- Provide protection from impact and penetration hazards caused by bumping the head against fixed objects such as low overhead objects
- Provide protection from electric shock and burns from contact with exposed electrical conductors
- Be constructed with materials that are water-resistant and slow burning
- Consist of a hard outer shell and suspension system designed to absorb impact which includes an adjustable head band to prevent the helmet from falling off the head
Hard Hat Safety: An Evolving Work
Over the years and because of lessons learned the evolution of the safety helmet continues as new research and innovations yield additional safety features to further protect the worker. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has as a goal of its current research to design a hard hat that better protects against traumatic brain injury.
Other research and data suggest additional hard hat features that may help protect against head injury. Specific features include:
- A hats suspension system. The suspension of a hat is its internal framework that is designed to absorb and dissipate impact energy. Increasing the number of harness suspensions has shown to help spread the impact over a wider area. Also, because of the suspension system can affect the helmet’s wear comfort, it also impacts the workers compliance in wearing the protective hat.
- An additional impact energy absorption feature. In addition to the traditional hard outer shell and suspension system for impact absorption, a new feature that provides a double-walled impact system (known as Crashbox) that functions like a crumple zone for a car to absorb much of the impact before it reaches the harness suspension system has entered the market.
- Engineered for a more secure fit and retention. Hats that provide a greater number of chin strap mounts seem to more effectively help keep the helmet on in the case of falls. A tension release mechanism that when it reaches its pulling force limit releases to avoid the risk of strangulation.
- Greater back of head coverage. Lower rear extending hard hats provide back-of-head protection that is an important consideration for work environments where the risk for rear head impacts is greater, like icy conditions or where objects are horizontally transported in the work area.
Head injury prevention requires a multifactorial approach involving the adherence of all involved to established safety rules and guidelines, the ongoing vigilance of employer and workers working together to identify and eliminate or reduce hazard risks, the increased awareness of diligence to a culture of caution, and the wearing of approved and in good shape personal protective equipment including approved safety hard hats.
Building according to this approach = reduced risk.