Every day, construction workers see a sign similar to this upon entering a job site: "Hard Hat This Area." Do workers actually pay attention to that sign and wear their hard hats correctly? Not always, as anyone who has visited a construction site can attest.

Jim Byrnes, product line manager for head protection at MSA in Pittsburgh, said that, in some cases, the reason workers wear their hard hats backward is legitimate. "Workers in tight areas wear their helmets backward because it is easier to maneuver in close quarters with it placed in that direction, and they don't want it to interfere with their work," Byrnes said. "Others wear them backward because it is easier to see without the brim in front."

Experts agree that most workers wear their hard hats backward because it is the "fad."

"Workers like the look," said Kristin Bacon, product manager for industrial safety at Bullard in Cynthiana, Ky. "In some cases, having the bill in the face reduces overhead visibility for workers, but most like to wear them that way because everyone else does."

Manufacturers do not recommend that workers wear their hard hats backward unless it is necessary for certain job applications. For instance, in welding operations, a worker must also wear a mask, which makes it difficult to wear the hat forward.

Hard hats are made to meet ANSI standard Z89.1- 1997 for top impact. They protect the head from small, falling objects. The shell, or outside, of a hard hat is rounded to mainly protect the crown of the head.

The shell works in combination with the suspension in the inside of the hat to absorb energy and protect the worker from a blow to the head, so wearing it correctly is important.

OSHA specifications require that workers wear hard hats the way they were designed to be worn unless the manufacturer certifies that a hard hat can be worn backward.

MSA and Bullard said that their hard hats can be worn that way when needed because both companies' symmetrical hard hats have been third-party certified for such use. This means that the companies' hard hats will still protect against top impact when backward as long as the suspension also is turned around.

This is done by making sure the headband is oriented normally to the wearer's head (i.e., with the brow pad against the forehead and the extended nape strap at the base of the skull). This way, only the shell of the helmet is backward on the head. Bacon noted, however, that many workers forget to, or simply don't, turn the suspension around in the hat, leaving them at risk when wearing the hat backward.

Another hard hat manufacturer, Fibre-Metal Products in Concordville, Pa., makes a hard hat that eliminates the problem of forgetting to turn the suspension around.

Fibre-Metal's Swingstrap hard hat allows the wearer to swing the ratchet adjustment headband to the front or the rear depending on the protection required for specific job hazards. When the additional protective equipment is no longer needed, the wearer swings the headband back to the normal wearing position.

Wearing It Correctly

Because manufacturers of head protection use different suspensions, Byrnes advises wearers to follow the manufacturer's recommended instructions for properly donning a hard hat.

Bacon said there are some generic instructions wearers can follow, however, to ensure they are donning their hats correctly:

  • Be sure the suspension fits properly on the nape of the neck.
  • Have the brow cap fit snugly on the forehead.
  • Follow manufacturers' specific instructions for sizing the hat for each user.

Manufacturers say the best way employers can encourage their employees to wear hard hats properly is by making their employees aware of the hazards, where they are located and what protection the hard hats afford.

"When employees know the hazards and see what can happen if they don't wear their hard hats, they will wear them," Bacon said.

David Kliwinski, safety manager with American Infrastructure, a construction company conglomerate based in Worcester, Pa., said his company does not have a problem getting workers to wear their hard hats and wear them correctly because of its training program.

Kliwinski said every new hire is required to go through two hours of safety training on hard hats and safety glasses.

"We distribute the hard hats at orientation," Kliwinski said. "The employees are fit with these items, and we also explain the importance of wearing them and wearing them correctly. The support of the president and CEO goes a long way in motivating this behavior."

Service and Care

OSHA's standard does not call for a particular service life of a hard hat, but does advise that hard hats be inspected before and after each use.

Byrnes suggested that users follow the manufacturer's instructions for replacing the suspension of the hard hat or the whole unit.

If the wearer is involved in an impact accident, the hard hat needs to be replaced immediately because the suspension has been stretched.

Also, if the hard hat is dropped from any type of elevation, Bacon said, it needs to be replaced.

"A new hard hat that has fallen may take a blow and show no outside appearance of being damaged, but it must be replaced," Bacon said.

Normally, Byrnes said, a hard hat won't last more than two years if worn every day. MSA tells its wearers to not use a hard hat for more than five years and to replace suspensions after 12 months.

Bullard recommends that their hard hats be replaced after two years even if they don't show signs of cracks or damage. And, Bacon adds, "If you work in an environment of either extreme heat or extreme cold, you may need to replace your hard hat more often because these environments allow for the most damage."

Like any other type of PPE, caring for hard hats properly can help extend service life. In general, manufacturers say to clean the hard hat with mild soap and clean, warm water, and let it air dry. Never use solvents or a cleaner on a helmet that could affect the integrity of the shell. Many brow pads on hard hats can be replaced without replacing the entire hat.

Proper storage of hard hats can also lead to an extended life span.

"Never store your hat in the back window of your car, and keep it out of the sun when not in use because UV rays can cause the biggest damage to hard hats," Bacon said.

The use of self-adhesive stickers by workers to personalize their hard hats for identification purposes is a common practice. This practice is allowable, according to the manufacturers, as long as the sticker being used is off the shelf.

"Stickers should be placed at least 1/2 inch above the brim. Be sure not to cover up any damage or cracks," Byrnes said.

Bacon added, "If any surface cracks, however small, should appear on the shell surface, either in the vicinity of the stickers or elsewhere, the helmet should be removed from service and replaced immediately."

Bacon also said wearers need to be mindful of what the sticker is made from. "Even if a sticker is not made of metal, it could act as a conductor and cause electric shock, so they should not be placed too close to the brim," Bacon said.

Byrnes added that wearers should never drill a hole in a hard hat to put a name tag on it because it could affect the integrity of the helmet shell.