Happy 100th Birthday to the Hard Hat

Public Domain. Alfred Palmer/ Library of Congress via Wikipedia

But don't think that it is the only thing that keeps construction workers safe.

We talk a lot about helmets on TreeHugger, and about Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). A hundred years ago, nobody wore helmets unless they were in the trenches. The first helmet was developed and patented in 1919 by J. W. Bullard, who made mining equipment like carbide lamps. According to the Bullard website,

“The original ‘Hard Boiled® hat’ was manufactured out of steamed canvas, glue, a leather brim, and black paint. My grandfather built a suspension device into what became the worlds’ first, commercially available, industrial head-protection device.”

Google patents

Google patent search/Public Domain

I cannot find the 1919 patent on Google, but there is a refinement filed in 1927. Eliot Lothrop writes in the Journal of Light Construction that they took some getting used to.

Until the 1930s, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), such as hard hats, was often considered of a sign of weakness—even cowardice. For hazardous work, workers were known to relent and stuff their hats with cotton or paper to provide some semblance of protection against blows to the head and falling objects. They also made makeshift protective hats by smearing tar on the cloth hats and letting them harden. What made Bullard’s hat distinctive was that it was the first foray into the manufacture (and standardization) of safety hats in the U.S. With this, a nascent PPE industry had begun, though wearing head protection routinely would take decades to catch on in industry.

The first job where hard hats became compulsory was the Golden Gate Bridge in 1933. The grandson of the inventor writes on the Bullard website:

"The project’s chief engineer, Joseph B. Strauss, shared a vision with my grandfather that the workplace could be a safer environment for the worker. One problem the bridge project faced was falling rivets, which could cause serious injury,” said Bullard. “My grandfather transformed the mining helmet into a durable industrial hard hat.”

NIOSH/Public Domain

The helmet biz has been good for the Bullard company, which is still going strong. Everyone in construction wears a helmet all the time, even if they are standing in an open field and the only thing that is ever going to hit their head is pigeon poop. It has become a symbol as much as a piece of protective gear.

Now everyone thinks that helmets are magic. But as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) notes, there is a Hierarchy of Controls, an order in which you do things.

The Center for Disease Control notes that PPE is good, but the first thing you should do is get rid of the hazard.

Administrative controls and PPE [personal protective equipment] are frequently used with existing processes where hazards are not particularly well controlled. Administrative controls and PPE programs may be relatively inexpensive to establish but, over the long term, can be very costly to sustain. These methods for protecting workers have also proven to be less effective than other measures, requiring significant effort by the affected workers.

On this 100th birthday of the hard hat, it's time to acknowledge that all the experts recognize that the first thing you do is remove the hazard. Then replace the hazard. Then separate people from the hazard. Then, lastly, you protect the worker.

Queen Anne Greenways hierachy
©. Queen Anne Greenways

© Queen Anne Greenways

This is why we go on about bike helmets. They are great; I wear one. But if you designed our communities properly, with separated bike lanes that eliminate the hazard, you wouldn't need one, which is why almost nobody wears them in the Netherlands or Denmark.

On this 100th birthday of the construction helmet, let's remember that they are at the bottom of the pyramid, the least effective method of protection. But instead we will probably have another hundred years of drivists complaining about cyclists.