Hard hats are easily the most recognizable piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) used in workplace environments such as construction sites. Although its function of protecting the head from trauma is the most important of any, this equipment is rarely inspected, maintained, or replaced.
The rugged appearance of a hard hat can disguise the need for replacement. In fact, many workers unknowingly wear hard hats everyday that are well past their useful life. Although there is standard service life for hard hats, most manufacturers recommend replacing hard hats every five years regardless of appearance. Under extreme work conditions, hard hats should be replaced more often.
The common ANSI Type I hard hat, which provides protection from overhead impact and penetration, consists of two components: The shell and suspension. Because these components work together as a system, if any component is not in good working condition, the hard hat wearer does not have adequate head protection. So, inspecting the helmet before each use is important.
INSPECTING THE SHELL
Shells should be inspected routinely for dents, cracks, gouges, and any damage due to impact, penetration, or other wear that might reduce the level of protection. When the shell becomes stiff, brittle, faded, or exhibits a chalky appearance, the hard hat should be replaced immediately.
Although most manufacturers add an ultraviolet inhibitor to the shell material to protect it from the harmful effects of direct sunlight, all hard hats remain susceptible to ultraviolet light damage. Workers should never store their hard hats in direct sunlight, such as the rear window of a car, as this is the quickest way to degrade the shell material and reduce the useful life of the equipment.
A recommended test for degradation is to compress the shell inward from both sides about one inch and then release the pressure without dropping the shell. It should return to its original shape quickly. If the elasticity is not similar to a new shell, it should be replaced.
INSPECTING THE SUSPENSION
The hard hat suspension is just as important to worker safety as the shell. The suspension helps to absorb the shock of a blow, so it must remain in good condition at all times. Like the shell, the suspension must be inspected regularly and replaced from time to time. Suspensions should be inspected closely for cracks, frayed or cut crown straps, torn headbands or size adjustment slots, loss of pliability, missing components, or other signs of wear.
All new employees should be provided with a new hard hat. Reissuing used hard hats must be avoided, as the cost of a new hard hat is minimal when considering the potential for injury.
If a hard hat has suffered a severe blow, it should be replaced immediately, even if it shows no signs of visible damage. Hard hats should also be replaced if dropped accidentally by the worker from the height of a two story building or higher.