Racing to Improve Head Protection

An accident in July in which a young man’s life was saved by a safety helmet was witnessed on TV by millions of people. Felipe Massa was driving in the Hungarian Grand Prix when a spring from another car impacted the side of his helmet and fractured his skull. A new helmet regulation issued five years earlier that introduced a combination of new design and materials to improve protection levels by 50 per cent, had spared his life.

Under the regulation the basic impact properties of the helmet outer shell were assessed by hitting it into a variety of different shaped anvils with an impact energy of 225J, and following the impact the resulting acceleration of the head must not exceed 300 times the force of gravity. The shell was also subjected to a hardness test which measured the resistance to penetration by a sharp steel point; a pointed 4kg striker with a 60-degree angle was dropped from three metres onto the top of the helmet. The spring which hit Massa impacted the front side of the helmet, and thanks to improved side impact protection also introduced by the new regulation, his life was saved.

Almost 2,000 people in the UK met with equally traumatic if less public accidents at work in 2007/08 and received major but non-fatal head injuries, and a further 39 people died from head injuries sustained at work. Some of these tragedies could have been averted by safety helmets of a higher specification, but although a European Standard for high performance industrial helmets has been available since 2005, only one PPE manufacturer produces head protection that meets it.

Industrial safety helmets of the existing European standard EN397 are primarily intended to protect workers against the impact of falling objects to the crown of the head rather than substantive off-centre impacts. However the more recent European standard for high performance industrial helmets offers greater protection from blows to the crown of the head and from side impact too.

EN14052 introduced an impact test in which the helmet is hit twice, once close to the crown by a 5KG weight dropped from 2 metres, and then again by the same weight dropped from one metre and striking the shell at between 15 and 60 degrees to test side impact performance. The standard also includes a two strike penetration test with a 1kg flat bladed striker. This is first dropped onto the crown area of the helmet from 2.5 metres, and then again onto the shell from 2 metres at an angle between 15 and 60 degrees.

High performance industrial helmets meet this standard and protect the wearer from falling objects and off crown impacts and the consequential brain injury, skull fracture and neck injury. Although some emergency services have adopted the higher specification helmets.

Hard hats or bump caps

Construction sites are often blanket hard hat areas, and the debate continues as to whether superior performance helmets, the usual EN397 compliant helmets, bump caps or even no head protection at all is acceptable and compliant. Roofers can argue that because helmets are designed to protect against falling objects, those people working at the highest point on a construction site where there is no risk of falling objects, should be exempt.

Workers in enclosed and confined areas such as electricians and plumbers are also at low risk of falling objects, but higher risk of bumps and scrapes to their heads. Industrial bump caps meeting the requirements of EN 812 are intended to provide protection to the wearer against the effects of striking the head against hard, stationary objects with sufficient severity to cause lacerations or other superficial injuries. They are not intended to provide protection against the effects of falling or thrown objects, or moving or suspended loads.

The Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989 require that suitable head protection be provided and worn whenever there is a risk of head injury. The risk may be from falling materials or from hitting stationary things in awkward, cramped working situations, and helmets must be worn in any designated ‘hard hat’ area; only turban wearing Sikhs are exempt If you are in control of a site you need to assess the risks of head injury from falling objects or from knocking into things such as low scaffolding. Selection of head protection for any task hinges upon an effective risk assessment, and its recommendations are likely to begin with a hierarchy of control measures before head protection is recommended to defend against residual risk.

If residual risk exists you must consider what protection should be worn and in what circumstances it should be mandatory. The regulations allow you to rule where and when helmets are mandatory, and these rules must apply to everyone on the site, including short and long term visitors; rules should be in writing and brought to the attention of everyone who may be affected by them. Enforcing the rules is another matter, and although today’s safety headwear offers more protection and is more comfortable than ever before, many workers still complain that it is hot, uncomfortable, unnecessary and simply uncool!

Energy absorbing properties

Helmets work by absorbing the impact energy which would otherwise go into the head by the outer shell breaking or deforming on impact. Once damaged, its ability to absorb energy is decreased and should be replaced. The amount of protection afforded by even high performance helmets is significant, but does have a limit. No helmet can guarantee the complete safety of the wearer and when its capacity for energy absorption is reached or exceeded, the helmet ceases to be effective.

Choosing the right head protection

Selection of head protection is not always straightforward, and the wide range of industrial processes, materials and environments results in a great variety of risk. Two industrial helmets widely used in Europe are the industrial safety helmet and the bump cap. The bump cap is designed and tested to protect the head of someone who walks into an obstruction or stands up in restricted headroom. It is unsuitable for protection against a falling or moving object, and is generally less protective than an industrial safety helmet.

For the majority of industrial environments the risk assessment recommendations can be satisfied by an industrial safety helmet meeting European Standard EN 397 or a bump cap meeting EN 812. But there are other factors that will influence the choice of helmet, such as the extremes of temperature and the materials and chemicals being worked with. Certain chemicals may cause rapid deterioration of some helmet plastics robbing them of energy absorbing properties and shortening their life. Risk assessment may show that other hazards are in the workplace, and eye protectors, ear defenders and respirators may all need to be used in conjunction with the helmet.

It is essential that each item of PPE worn is compatible with the others. Compatibility is about wearer comfort and the continued performance of each item. In such cases the helmet manufacturer is a valuable source of information, because helmets are made in a number of materials and with a range of accessories and the manufacturer will advise which is best for your application.

Head protection should not hinder the work being carried out, and a peaked helmet for example may not be suitable for a surveyor taking measurements or a scaffold erector who needs an unrestricted upward field of vision. Chin straps will be necessary if the job involves windy conditions, especially at height, or if the work requires frequent bending over or looking upwards.

Wearers should not overestimate how much protection they can expect from their helmet, and someone in an industrial safety helmet could assume reasonable protection from a falling object of 5 kilogram mass with a velocity of approximately 5 metres per second. In a real situation this could be a house brick falling from 1 metre. If the mass is greater than 5 kilogram or it falls from more than 1 metre, the protection offered will be less.

Wearing head protection is never a substitute for safe working practice, and staff should be encouraged to respect their helmet and always use it for the intended purpose. A helmet can only deliver its full protection if adjusted and worn correctly, and helmet size should be appropriate for the wearer, with harness tight but comfortable. The practice of reversing helmets on the head prevents the helmet functioning as designed and in an impact the helmet will not provide its maximum protection.

Users should regularly inspect both the helmet shell and harness for signs of wear. Deep abrasions or scuffs will weaken the helmet and are a suitable reason for replacement, as are cracks or damage to the harness. Helmets are marked with their manufacture date, and if treated with care should provide adequate protection for up to five years. Products stored in boxes and not exposed to environmental extremes should have an unlimited shelf life, but the condition of a helmet is much more important than its age. Helmets are frequently dropped, thrown and stored on the parcel shelf of cars, and all of these should be avoided if the integrity of the helmet is to be maintained.

Emerging markets

In many third world countries the idea of wearing head protection for any task is still a novelty. In Nigeria dozens of Lagos motorcycle taxi riders with dried fruit shells and empty paint pots on their heads were arrested by police at the beginning of this year for trying to avoid a new helmet law which came into effect in January. According to News, construction workers set up a lucrative trade in the city renting their safety helmets to riders who could not afford to purchase their own head protection.

An article in the Brunei Times reported that most foreign construction workers there from India and Indonesia were used to going without helmets, and most were unaware of their legal rights to have equipment provided. The Times of India reported in July that most industries in that country overlook the safety of workers, did not supply the helmets or other safety equipment that they were obligated to issue and preferred to pay the small fine than the greater cost of providing for proper worker safety. The newspaper reported assertions that workplace deaths in India are hopelessly under-reported, and frequently not reported at all.

When larger international companies are involved the standards are usually high. In Dubai, a health and safety bulletin published by Dutco Balfour Beatty-LLC referred to one accident when superior PPE saved a life when normal standards of protection would have proved fatal.

The bulletin stated: “Our workers were engaged in shifting a mobile scaffold tower approximately six metres high. They had placed some cable trays and trunking on the suspended supports, which were to be fixed. As the scaffold tower was being shifted it accidentally hit the cable trays and the trunking fell down. A couple of workers were standing below. One worker looked up to see what was happening. The metal trunking was falling vertically above the peak of the helmet as he looked up. The corner penetrated through the shell causing a deep cut on his forehead, which was administered with three stitches later at the hospital. The victim basically escaped a fatal injury because of the good quality of the industrial safety helmet that he was wearing.”

Industrial helmets have come a long way from the leather head protection worn by miners 150 years ago, or the canvass ‘hard boiled’ hat worn by American workers after WW1. Early photographs of British workers invariably show them in soft flat caps which were fashionable in the 1920s and 30s, and in America the first hard hat area was said to be the Golden Gate Bridge construction site in the early 1930s. The main hazard for construction workers there was falling rivets, and although 11 workers were killed during the four year project, no deaths were attributed to workers struck by falling objects.

In 1938 the first aluminium hard hat was produced for American construction workers, and the only drawback for the lightweight durable helmet was the metal’s high electrical conductivity. The need for compromise in safety was accepted then, but today there is little excuse for not procuring the right equipment for the job. With increased crown strike protection, side impact protection plus other improvements defined by the new European Standard, there are fewer legitimate reasons to compromise in helmet selection, even when the highest levels of protection are called for.

While Formula 1 will always be a hazardous sport, the technology will go on expanding the safety threshold for drivers and the survivability of accidents. Hazards will always exist in industry too, and manufacturers such as JSP will go on refining and developing products within and beyond the established standards to create the choices safety professionals need in the ever changing world of work.

Author Details:

Benedict J WardSales & Marketing Director, JSP.

Career History.

1993 – Graduate of Humberside University BA Hons reading Business

1993 – Joined Combined Precision Component

1999 – Head hunted to join Seton as Product Manager, final position was Strategic Procurement Manager

2003 – Head hunted to join New Pig as Product Marketing Director

2004 – Joined Buck & Hickman as Product Manager for the Health & Safety Segment

2007 to date – joined JSP as Marketing Director, was promoted to Sales & Marketing Director in 2008

Only JSP manufacture an industrial helmet which meets the standard EN14052. The helmet is called the EV08 and offers the highest level of protection for hazardous environments such as mining and tunnelling, demolition, construction, refineries, and offshore and marine.

JSP LtdWorsham Mill, Minster LovellOxford OX29 OTAUnited Kingdom

Tel +44 (0)1993 826050Export +44 (0)1993 [email protected] [email protected]

Published: 10th Sep 2009 in Health and Safety International