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How to Keep Your Head

Published: 26th Jun 2013


Mining safety professional Andrew Watson gives an in depth view of the many elements pertaining to head protection – from what needs to be safeguarded, through to how.


What ‘above the neck’ requires protection? Let’s start at the top and work downwards. • The HEAD • The EYES – sight • The EARS – hearing • The NOSE – smell, breathing • The MOUTH – taste, breathing

This emphasises – if it was ever required – the importance of the head to the human condition, and why we should protect it. We breathe through the head, and we hear and see from the head.


Head injuries are referred to as trauma of the head. This can include injury to the brain, scalp and skull. The National Health Service in the UK treats around 700,000 people with head injuries each year. These are classified as minor – 90% – and major – 10%.

Minor includes a bump or bruise, nausea and dizziness. Major includes concussion, fits or seizures, speech, hearing and sight problems.

The most common causes of head injuries at work are road traffic accidents and slips, trips and falls. An interesting statistic is that around 75% of head injuries occur to men. This may be a reflection on the nature of the work carried out, or the risk being taken.


Eye injuries can range from relatively trivial, such as an irritation due to mild fumes or chemicals, toextremely serious injuries caused by a blow to the eye, foreign body, cut to the eyelid or eyeball, chemical or ultraviolet light exposure.


The most common cause of ear injuries, apart from the obvious cuts and abrasions to the outer ear, is acoustic trauma. This occurs with prolonged exposure to loud noise, such as pneumatic drills or compressed air hammers, but also includes staff who work in places where loud music is played – nightclubs, for example. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK has set a lower exposure action value – employers need to reduce exposure – of 80 decibels.


Nose injuries are again the obvious cuts and abrasions, but nosebleeds, or epistaxis, can be an indication of other health problems such as high blood pressure, a heart condition or blood clotting problems.


Mouth injuries have more to do with health issues such as a possible indication of Tetanus, or clostridium tetani. This is indicated by muscle stiffness and spasms in the jaw muscle, sometimes referred to as ‘lockjaw’.

The importance of the nose and mouth in the process of breathing goes without saying. They provide a route to enable the taking in of oxygen to the lungs and a path for the removal of waste gases, such as carbon dioxide.

This brief introduction to health and safety issues and the impact of injuries above the neck hopefully makes us realise the importance of providing suitable and adequate protection to this area of the body.

Head protection

The HSE gives the example of a worker being struck on the head. He (remember 75% of head injuries happen to men) suffered severe head and spinal injuries after a fixed box pillar he was removing fell on his head. He was in hospital for more than six months and is now permanently disabled. He has difficulty speaking and moving. He will never work again and requires full time care. He could have died.

His employer was fined £14,000 and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £6,808 – £20,808. This would buy a lot of hard hats.

A hard hat should be: • In good condition – if not, throw it away • A good fit – if not, it will not be worn correctly and not do its job properly • Compatible with other personal protective equipment being supplied, e.g. ear and eye protection • A suitable and acceptable standard – there are cheap fakes out there. It’s just not worth the risk

Another HSE example was a worker injured when a piece of metal, approximately twice the size of a smart phone, fell from height during demolition work. The piece of metal initially hit the worker’s hard hat, leaving a very noticeable mark/dent on it. It then had enough energy to break his shoulder in several places and also break his collarbone. You, I am sure, don’t need me to inform you of the potential impact if he had not been wearing his hard hat.

If your risk assessments say hard hats are required to control and minimise risk, you must ensure they are worn by enforcement and example.

Other forms of head protection, such as bump caps for lower risks, are also available.

On a personal note, please do not forget the need to provide protection for those with long hair. I once observed someone getting their hair caught in a moving rope and being dragged into some rollers. Fortunately, the rope was stopped, but the damage to the scalp was considerable – all for the sake of not being provided with and wearing a hair net. This is a simple and inexpensive protection which can also be worn with a hard hat.

Eye protection

Eye protection is needed to protect workers who: • Operate machinery with the potential to produce splinters and dust • Require protection from fumes and chemical splashes

1. Eye hazards • Liquids or chemical splash • Splinters and debris produced from power driven tools • Dust, gas, liquid, mist and vapour from high pressure cleaning or gases under pressure • Radiant heat, molten metal, hot solids or liquids from hot work such as welding, cutting, grinding, ovens and furnaces • Intense light from welding or lasers • Similar protection should also be provided for those in the working area of these hazards

2. Eye protection • Safety spectacles are utilised as low risk protection against dust in the atmosphere • Goggles are utilised in higher risk situations where protection is required from all angles, i.e. the hazard has the potential to be projected towards the individual and/or protects from fumes, gases and vapours. Note: some goggles designed to protect from impact injuries are ventilated and these will not provide protection against fumes, gases and vapours • Faceshields are utilised to protect the face as a whole and not the eyes specifically. These can be supplied with a head harness or mounted on a hard hat and are for low risk impact injuries and dust protection All of the above can be used in conjunction with prescription lenses. • Mesh or gauze protection – In some conditions such as hot and humid environments, it may be beneficial to use mesh eye protection. These can be in either spectacle, goggle or faceshield form and provide effective eye protection without the risk of misting up

For those involved in welding operations, protection for the eyes from projected and hot splinters, debris, slag, radiation (ultraviolet and infrared), photochemical burns, intense light and irritation and chemical burns from fumes and chemicals needs to be addressed.

Last, but not least, don’t forget protecting workers from the effects of sunlight – when there is some!

Ear protection

There are two basic forms of ear protection available: • Earplugs – these fit into or cover the ear canal • Earmuffs – these fit over and surround the ear

The advantages of earplugs are that they are small and easily carried. They are compatible for use with other forms of personal protection equipment, such as eye protective. They can be more comfortable when used in hot and humid areas.

They can also be convenient for use in areas of restricted space. The disadvantages are that inserting correctly and removal can be time consuming and difficult. There are also hygiene considerations and it is difficult to monitor usage.

The advantages of earmuffs are that there is less attenuation variability among users – one size fits all, they are easily seen and can be worn with minor ear irritations/infections. The disadvantages are that they are less portable and heavy. They can be difficult to use with other personal protective equipment and also in restricted spaces.

Nose and mouth protection

There are protection devices available to protect the face in general and the nose and mouth specifically. These tend to be aimed at the sports and adventure markets, but commercial units are also available.

The importance of the nose and mouth in the human body’s respiratory system is obviously critical to sustaining life, and suitable protection is important, particularly in the work environment. Some typical work examples include:

1. Brewing

It was not unknown in the distant past for workers who entered the brewing vats to hold their breath and pass through carbon dioxide (CO2). They would then undertake work in the vat ensuring they breathed in air above the carbon dioxide level. This is certainly not to be recommended.

2. Mining

Methane (CH4) is lighter than air (specific gravity 0.554). Carbon dioxide (CO2) is heavier than air (specific gravity 1.53). The importance of the above information to mineworkers is where and in what circumstances the gases would/could be located in a mine.

Methane (firedamp) would generally be found to the rise or in roof cavities. Carbon dioxide (blackdamp) would generally be found to the dip or in sumps.

These gases are controlled in mines by achieving high standards of ventilation, which prevent accumulation of any gases in the mine environment.

If something went wrong and an unwary mineworker walked or climbed into an accumulation of methane, he could collapse due to lack of oxygen. Fortunately, he would fall into an increased level of oxygen and hopefully recover.

The mineworker walking into an accumulation of carbon dioxide would also collapse due to a lack of oxygen. He could fall into increased levels of carbon dioxide and recovery would be difficult, to say the least.

Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is utilised frequently in industry to provide protection to those who work in hazardous environments or with hazardous substances. RPE is able to provide a variety of methods of protection. All, in one way or another, supply air to the nose and mouth area of the head.

Types of respirators available are: • Disposable half mask • Reusable half mask • Full face mask • Fan powered reusable full face mask • Fan powered respirator with reusable hood, helmet or visor Types of breathing apparatus available: • Unpowered fresh air hose with full face mask • Compressed airline with half mask • Compressed air breathing apparatus • Powered fresh air hose with full face mask • Compressed air breathing apparatus or powered fresh air hose with hood, helmet or visor • Self contained breathing apparatus, or compressed air breathing apparatus with a demand valve and full face mask • Self contained rebreathers (oxygen)

All of the above types of respirators and breathing apparatus have their particular uses. The parameters which need to be considered in order to identify the suitable type are as follows:

1. Is the work to be carried out in a confined space/ subject to Confined Space Regulations?

2. Is there the potential for an oxygen deficient atmosphere in the work area?

3. Is there the possibility of a sudden inundation of the work area by any of the following?: • Liquid • Solids • Gases • Steam • Water • Sewage

4. Is there the potential for a flammable atmosphere in the work area?

5. Is communication required from the work area?

6. Is communication essential from the work area?

7. Is communication possible from the work area?

8. How long will the RPE need to be worn for?

9. How much effort is required to complete the work task?

10. Will the work be carried out utilising hazardous substances and subject to Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH)?

Further consideration may be required of the CHIP Regulations 2009 (Chemicals Hazard Information and Packaging for supply), the CPL Regulations 1984 (Clarification, Packaging and Labelling of dangerous substances) prior to specific hazard identification and completion of a detailed risk assessment.

For further assistance and guidance on the correct selection of RPE I would recommend the HSE’s Respiratory Protective Equipment at Work – a practical guide (HSG53).

It is important to note that the actual use of RPE is an identified last resort. RPE will only protect the wearer. The identified use of RPE brings in extra factors that must be considered: • Training and assessment in the use of RPE to ensure competence • Maintenance of the RPE • The fit of the RPE mask to the face • The comfort level of the RPE • The additional effort required by the person when wearing RPE

Prior to the identification that RPE will be required, every attempt should have been made to control the exposure to the hazard by reasonably practicable measures.

You must also consult with your workforce. This is a legal requirement, as their safety and health will be dependent on the correct use of the identified RPE.

Finally, for RPE to be effective, it must be identified by means of a risk assessment as being suitable for the task.

Tight fitting facepiece

A tight fitting facepiece is a full face mask, a half mask or even a filtering facepiece. This includes even the ‘humble’ disposable dust mask. The effectiveness of the tight fitting RPE relies on the quality of the fit of the facepiece to the wearer’s face. It is therefore necessary to consider the wearer of the RPE who, I am sure you are aware, comes in all shapes and sizes.

It is not possible that any one piece of RPE will effectively fit all your employees. Look around you – especially at the nose and mouth – and you will have thin faces, fat faces, hairy faces, long faces, short faces, male and female faces, and perhaps even damaged faces. All of these have a potential to affect the seal between the RPE and the wearer’s face.

RPE fit testing

Research has shown that almost half of the RPE in use does not provide the wearer with the anticipated level of protection required for the task to be carried out, simply because it does not fit the wearer correctly. It is pointless spending a considerable amount of money providing your workforce with essential protection, identified by a detailed risk assessment, only for it to be partially or even wholly ineffective due to a poor fit. This can significantly increase the risk for those using the RPE.

There are three main types of RPE fit testing methods available: • Qualitative – taste test • Quantitive – ambient particle count/Portacount – with or without N95 companion, for disposables • Controlled negative pressure

It is important to ensure the competence of the person undertaking the RPE fit test and that it is suitable for the task being carried out.

Compatibility of all, including RPE

It cannot be emphasised sufficiently that you must ensure your personal protective equipment and your respiratory protective equipment must be able to be effective when worn together.

Typical examples may include: • Providing earmuffs and safety glasses, with support which goes behind the ear, breaking the seal created for the earmuffs to be effective • Providing a full face mask which, when fitted, prevents the hard hat being worn correctly

Think about it and try it out – don’t forget to consult with those who are required to wear the PPE/RPE.

Finally, never lose sight of the fact that PPE and RPE must be a last resort.

Control the risk first!

Published: 26th Jun 2013 in Health and Safety International

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Andrew Watson has worked in the mining industry for over 40 years and has been an operational mines rescue officer for 35 of these years. He is the Commercial and Business Development Director for MRS Training and Rescue, (the Mines Rescue Service) which offer...