Personal Protective Equipment

Hard Hats and Bump Caps: The Evolution of Head Protection

Hard hats have become the PPE that is particularly emblematic of safety, and head protection systems are evolving to meet the needs of modern workers. Read the transcript of our recent conversation with Chris Cota and Aaron Skemp from Ergodyne®, where we took a special look at the most recent developments in head protection.

Head protection, hard hats

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This episode was originally released on August 15, 2019, and you can listen to the full audio here.

Justin Scace: Hello everyone, and welcome to EHS on Tap. I’m your host, Justin Scace, senior editor of the EHS Daily Advisor and Safety Decisions magazine.

In our latest episode, we’re talking about a form of personal protective equipment that is almost synonymous with safety itself: head protection! Head injuries are incredibly serious, so it makes sense that the hard hat has become the PPE that is particularly emblematic of safety. However, other than a few fit tests or maybe the color occasionally changing from yellow to white, blue, or orange, some may think that there’s little to be changed or improved upon with traditional hard hats—but they would be wrong. Head protection is evolving to be more effective, comfortable, and easy to use, and new solutions are helping to protect the workforce better than ever before. In today’s EHS on Tap episode, sponsored by Ergodyne®, we’re taking a special look at head protection with a couple of experts who are on the cutting edge of the evolution of this important form of PPE.

Joining us today on the podcast are Chris Cota and Aaron Skemp. Chris Cota is product manager for Ergodyne, and he took the reins of Ergodyne’s protection pillar in 2018, helping lead the development of the safety work gear manufacturer’s head and eye protection, supports, knee and hand protection, and hi-vis apparel. Working alongside Chris is Ergodyne product specialist Aaron Skemp, and both Chris and Aaron spend countless hours in the field analyzing job site safety risks and partnering closely with safety managers and work crews in developing and testing safety work gear solutions that not only mitigate risk, but encourage compliance through thoughtful and stylishly designed PPE that workers actually want to wear—a hallmark of Ergodyne’s line of Tenacious Work Gear™.

Chris and Aaron, it’s great to have you here, and thank you for being with us today on EHS on Tap!

Chris Cota: Thanks, Justin.

Aaron Skemp: Thank you, Justin.

Justin Scace: So the first thing that I want to talk about with you guys is, the hard hat has become this iconic symbol of workplace safety and it really emphasizes safety’s focus on head injury prevention. So, what are the current trends and statistics out there for workplace head injuries and what are some common causes and costs surrounding these incidents?

Chris Cota: It’s a great question, Justin. So according to the BLS, Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 40,000 head injuries occur every year with at least one day away from work. Now, the interesting part of that as we talk about hard hats is only 6% of those come from the construction industry, while we see about 10% from manufacturing, and about another nine from the transportation and warehousing industry. So you can do the math there, but about three times more head injuries in things other than construction, which is where we most typically see hard hats being used.

Justin Scace: How is head protection evolving to meet the needs of modern workers? We’re starting to see the growing presence of bump caps. So, what is a bump cap and how does it differ from a hard hat?

Chris Cota: So to answer this, I’m going to start with the hazards. So hard hats are designed to protect you from object-generated impacts, something falling on your head. Whereas a bump cap is designed to protect you from worker-generated impacts, so, you banging your head on something. We talk about that because it’s an important note to make because bump caps will never replace a hard hat. It’s not a substitute. It’s really there to augment a head protection program for people that might work in a tight, confined space where a hard hat might actually get in the way or prevent you from doing your job, or you keep knocking it off, or keeps falling off, what have you. So it’s really a different application for a different hazard that we see, and the other thing to remember is you want to do it in an area where there isn’t a risk for something to fall on your head, right? You don’t want to have object-generated impact hazard there or you’d be wanting to use a hard hat.

Justin Scace: Okay. So are these smaller than hard hats then?

Chris Cota: Yeah, so a bump cap, there’s really two different types of bump caps in the industry today. There are ones that were sort of the genesis of a bump cap, really were born out of a hard hat. I call it a simplified hard hat, where they take a traditional form factor that you see in a hard hat with the hard plastic shell, with the suspension in an air gap, and they simplified it, for lack of a better term. They made the plastic a little bit thinner. The suspension may be a little bit less robust, but it has a similar impact protection where you have that air gap and the suspension that absorbs that impact. They look very similar to a hard hat, but they’re actually a bump cap so they don’t meet the same impact standards that a traditional hard hat would.

Now, where the industry has gone more is in what we would call a baseball style bump cap. So that would be something that looks and feels very much like a baseball hat. You take a hard plastic shell and then various types of foam on the inside of that to help and give you that impact protection. So as opposed to creating that air gap with the suspension in the plastic shell that’s suspended over your head, you take that, you put it much tighter to the head. So you get less height and less risk for bumping into things and still gives you the impact protection from bumps, scrapes, and cuts.

Justin Scace: Okay, so you talked about this a little bit before—we typically associate head protection primarily with industries like construction or maybe mining, but what other industries are affected by PPE developments like bump caps?

Chris Cota: So the areas, the industries where we’re seeing lot of growth are those places that are working in the tight confined spaces. So think of airlines (the people on the ramp putting away bags), maintenance workers, abatement, pest control, home service installers, things like that. I’m also seeing some growth in manufacturing and mechanics. So places where, again, traditionally you haven’t needed to wear a hard hat because there’s not somebody working above you or you’re not having something fall on you, but you’re still working in tight spaces around various equipment, having to service different equipment every day where there’s a lot of risks for banging your head or having a really nasty gash.

Justin Scace: Right. So areas like crawl spaces or if there’s piping overhead, things like that?

Chris Cota: Exactly.

Justin Scace: So bump caps, are they relatively—well, actually you already mentioned that there’s baseball style ones—but are they relatively uniform in terms of shape and style, the way most hardhats are, or are there different types for different applications and industries?

Chris Cota: So today, like we mentioned, there’s really those two different styles. The simplified bump cap, which is what people are … Simplified, hard hat, excuse me, which is what people are most familiar with. Then that baseball style that fits closer to the head. So from there there’s a few different iterations of that baseball style. So today there’s what we call a full system bump cap, which includes the hat, the plastic shell, and the foam all in one system, and then there’s what we would call a universal bump cap insert. So those are meant to go in your current hat and are great for people that have uniform programs or applications like that. So guys don’t have to use a different hat and they can use what they already are currently wearing.

Justin Scace: Oh, okay.

Aaron Skemp: And Justin, I’m going to jump in and add, you mentioned style and shape. Bump caps, there’s a lot of different brim lengths too. So a micro brim think of hardly a brim at all coming off of your baseball hat, and that’s for people really working in tight quarters that don’t need a brim at all. Then we have a long brim as well, which is more of that traditional baseball cap style for protection and some things like that. Also, within styles of bump caps, there are versions with LED lighting as well for people working in dark spaces that need a little extra light where they’re working.

Justin Scace: Oh, excellent. So if somebody has a uniform that they need to keep to, they can put an insert in, or if they’re going through the dark, they can have almost like a flashlight built into their cap.

Chris Cota: Exactly.

Aaron Skemp: Absolutely.

Justin Scace: Great. So here’s the thing that comes to mind when it comes to almost any form of PPE. What about comfort and utility? We often hear a common excuse for workers not wearing their PPE (even though there’s no good excuse for not wearing PPE), is it gets in the way, it’s too hot, it’s limiting their mobility, or it chafes, or it hurts, et cetera, et cetera. So how do bump caps or other modern head protection equipment, how do they measure up on that front versus traditional hard hats?

Chris Cota: That is a challenge that Aaron and I deal with every single day and something that we are working on constantly to try to improve for worker safety and safety managers everywhere. So from the bump cap side, we have been working really hard to add as much ventilation and airflow as possible to the hard hats while still maintaining their impact protection and still meeting the EN 812 standard, which we’ll talk about in a little bit more, but it’s a tight rope that we have to walk between. Not having too much ventilation that you lose your impact or your penetration resistance, while adding as much air flow to keep it as cool as possible. The other side of that is the weight. So those are the two biggest complaints that I think anybody would know from a bump cap, is heat and weight.

So by obviously adding more ventilation, you add more, or you reduced the weight as well. So those are the challenges that we’re doing, but without losing any of that impact protection that you have. Future-wise we’re always looking at ways and we’re trying to figure out how we can incorporate some of the traditional cooling products into our bump caps to make them as cool as possible. For the hard hat side, there’s a ton of different things, whether it’s an accessory or the hard hat itself. We’ve developed countless hard hat accessories to help keep people both cool in the summer and warm in the winter. So on the winter side we have a wide variety of balaclavas that are meant to work with hard hats in winters, with hook and loop to hold them into the hard hat suspension, and then in the summer for keeping cool we have a wide variety of neck shades, brims to add even more protection from the sun, moisture-wicking sweat bands, and then all those options, neck shade, sweat bands, we’ve taken in and incorporated various cooling materials such as PVA or microfiber to be able to add even further cooling properties to that.

Then on the hard hat side, some of the newer developments and something we just launched is a Class C style hard hat with adjustable vents. So you can open those up when it gets hot to get some more air flow, and close them down if it’s raining or if you want to retain some more of that heat. So that is definitely the biggest challenges with both bump caps and hard hats is heat and weight, and us along with all of our competitors are thinking about it every day, how we can make it even more comfortable and keep that compliance up.

Justin Scace: Now, I saw a few of the things that you’re doing over at Ergodyne and I noticed, just since we’re talking about accessories, you build in other forms of PPE into it too, like hearing protection and stuff?

Chris Cota: Absolutely, yep. So most hard hats, including ours that we just launched, will have side slots that are adapted for the use with the vast majority of the common accessories out there, and you mentioned the majority of them. Hearing protection, face shields, in some cases some will include sunglass-type visors on there as well, in order to help keep everything in one place and in one system.

Justin Scace: Very cool. Very cool. So moving back to something that you briefly touched upon in your last answer, you were talking about a standard. So one question that I have is what about the workplace safety compliance front? Are there any standards surrounding bump caps specifically, and will bump caps satisfy current workplace safety regulatory obligations as it relates to head protection?

Chris Cota: It’s a great question. So today there isn’t a U.S. standard for the bump cap. So from the regulatory obligation side, at least stateside, there isn’t anything to fall into, and we mentioned it before and I’ll say it again because it’s important, but if you have to wear a hard hat, a bump cap is not a replacement for it. So as far as that goes, it’s a different application for that. I did mention it, there is one worldwide standard, or there’s one standard in the world, the EN 812 bump cap standard. It tests things like impact on top, front, and back. It has a penetration resistance test. It does it all at a number of different environmental factors, warm, cold, wet, that sort of stuff. So there is that standard that exists in the world. As I mentioned, we have two different styles of bump cap, one that we would call a full system, and then those universal bump cap inserts. The universal bump caps inserts don’t meet EN 812 because you have to have that full system and have the covering (a.k.a. the hat), on that piece of plastic to make that a bump cap. So the 812 doesn’t cover something like a universal insert, but it would that whole system. So it’s important, obviously, with the average emergency room visit costing about $1,200.

Justin Scace: Yeah.

Chris Cota: Despite it not meeting that EN standard, it’s still a whole lot better than nothing.

Justin Scace: Definitely. So how do you see the continued evolution of head protection playing out? Will there always be a place for traditional hard hats? I mean it sounds like there will be, or should organizations start to adapt with new forms of PPE?

Chris Cota: Absolutely. It’s another great question, and there will definitely always be a place for a traditional hard hat. That being said, it doesn’t mean they can’t keep evolving. So the next evolution of hard hats that’s out there, and it’s starting now, is what people typically refer to as a climber-style hard hat. So these are the ones that have a little bit different look. They obviously come out of the climbing world, the mountaineering world, and generally have a chin strap. So the benefits of these for safety managers and workers out there is a traditional hard hat today, the ones that have been made for 100 years, only protect you from an impact right on the top of the head, right on the crown of the head. That’s where all the testing is done. That’s where the vast majority of the protection is designed into it. So climber-style, take that and add that protection into the sides, front and back.

Then there’s some different testing, different standards that go into these climber-style helmets that help, I’ll use the word “proof,” the side and impact testing. So the one most people state they are familiar with is the ANSI type two, and what’s interesting is the vast majority of climber-style helmets that are out there today don’t actually meet ANSI type two. They meet the EN 12492 standard, which again comes out of the mountaineering world to help protect against the side and back, side, front, and back impact protection. Then also I mentioned they typically have a chin strap. So that’s obviously there to help keep the hard hat on in the event of a fall. We’ve heard stories about a worker who passed away from a head injury from falling from the second step of a ladder. Very real risk. It’s a very real injury potential. So it is where the hard hats are going in the future.

Justin Scace: So, the National Safety Council, they’re having their 2019 Congress & Expo and it’s coming up just next month. I understand Ergodyne will be there with some innovative head protection solutions. Where can folks find you at the upcoming conference?

Chris Cota: Come see us at booth 5226. We’ll have all our innovative head protection options available for review. Aaron and I will be there manning the booth, so come look for us. It’s the giant orange tent. We’ll be pumping tunes, have a few surprises up our sleeves.

Justin Scace: Okay, well that sounds great, and we look forward to seeing you guys at NSC’s 2019 Congress & Expo, and we look forward to learning more about how head protection and other PPE is continually evolving. So thank you again, Chris and Aaron for joining us today on EHS on Tap!

Chris Cota: Thanks, Justin.

Aaron Skemp: Thanks, Justin.

Justin Scace: All right, and we would also like to thank Ergodyne for sponsoring this episode of EHS on Tap, and thanks to our listeners for tuning in. Be sure to keep an eye out for new episodes of our podcast and keep reading the EHS Daily Advisor to stay on top of your safety and environmental compliance obligations, get the latest in best practices, and keep your finger on the pulse of all things related to the EHS industry. Until next time, this is Justin Scace for EHS on Tap.

Chris Cota is Product Manager for Ergodyne, and he took the reins of Ergodyne’s Protection pillar in 2018, helping lead the development of the safety work gear manufacturer’s head and eye protection, supports, knee & hand protection, and hi-vis apparel. Working alongside Chris is Ergodyne Product Specialist Aaron Skemp, and both Chris and Aaron spend countless hours in the field analyzing jobsite safety risks and partnering closely with safety managers and work crews in developing and testing safety work gear solutions that not only mitigate risk, but encourage compliance through thoughtful and stylishly designed PPE that workers actually want to wear—a hallmark of Ergodyne’s line of Tenacious Work Gear™.


EHS on Tap is an environmental, health, and safety podcast by BLR’s EHS Daily Advisor. On each episode of EHS on Tap, our host will discuss emerging legal, regulatory, and policy issues with industry experts and the impacts to everyday safety and environmental professionals. EHS on Tap topics run the gamut of contemporary issues facing EHS managers and professionals today.

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