Ensuring the right level of head protection is vital to prevent head injury in the workplace and is the employer’s responsibility. However, all though most helmets may look similar at a quick glance, different helmets perform at completely different levels, some of which are more appropriate than others in certain situations.
Since specifying too high a level of protection can be as detrimental as under-specifying, the correct head protection must be linked to both the hazard it is providing protection from and the environment in which it is doing so.
The statistics speak for themselves. According to the HSE, in 2009/10 there were 3,141 head injuries in the UK that required more than three days off work and 1,152 major head injuries, life-changing events for those suffering them. Worse, there were 24 deaths from injury to the head, and although the figure is an improvement over that of 2008-09, these people still died needlessly and there are still far too many people sustaining severe head injuries (see table below). Although a helmet will not completely eliminate the likelihood of head injury and may not necessarily have stopped people from dying, if the right helmet had been worn in the right place, the numbers could have been reduced.
Legislation and Standards
Head protection is covered by The Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989 and the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992. While these pieces of legislation make it clear that safety helmets should be worn, they do not explain which kind of helmet should be worn and where, leading to potential confusion and risk of injury where inappropriate head protection is selected.
The Standards governing head protection were originally written as long ago as 1957, when equipment was smaller and less heavy-duty. Since then, working environments have changed drastically, with a much higher risk of side impact from modern, high-powered methods of work, equipment and machinery, including the peripheral dangers of swinging objects from cranes.
Up until 2005, when a new, much more rigorous Standard, EN14052, was introduced, there was only one Standard for industrial safety helmets, EN397, which is not intended to provide side impact or off-crown protection and assumes that falling objects will hit a worker on the top of the head. The EN14052 Standard requires a more high-performance helmet that will withstand forces over three times the crown impact level of those in the old EN397, and for the first time provide protection all over the helmet shell, including from side impacts. EN14052 is a modern Standard for modern times in very hazardous environments, but helmets that conform to this Standard should not be used on every occasion.
Both EN397 and EN14052 cover objects impacting the head. The third relevant Standard, EN812, covers industrial bump caps, which protect the worker from striking or lacerating their head against hard, stationary objects. Bump caps are not intended to provide protection against the effects of falling or thrown objects, or moving or suspended loads.
Right helmet, right situation
The high-performance industrial helmets that conform to, and preferably exceed, EN14052 offer the highest level of protection from falling objects, off-crown impacts and penetration by a flat blade striker. These helmets should be used in extreme environments, such as heavy and high-rise construction, mining, tunnelling, demolition, oil and gas, offshore/marine, refining and high-pressure jetting, where there is not only very heavy machinery but items that are very likely to fall plus a very strong danger of impact from the side. If a person were working beside a vehicle using a crane to unload cast iron, for example, they would benefit from a high-performance helmet.
Helmets with the next level of protection, which meet and vastly exceed Standard EN397, are ideal for use in general construction, in building houses of three to four storeys, in manufacturing and in engineering where there might be a chance of falling objects hitting them. These helmets should be used in circumstances such as the laying of underground pipes or cabling, where people watching an operative from above may accidentally kick a tool or some rubble into the hole and there is a reasonable likelihood of a low-level impact on the worker’s head. Or if work is taking place on a highway under a bridge, for instance, there might be a risk of something falling from above.
In ‘blue-sky’ environments with nothing above and minimal risk of falling objects, lightweight helmets that still conform to EN397 may be worn. These weigh 20% less than a normal helmet, but are not as strong as other available helmets that meet and exceed the EN397. People working in low rise construction, building bungalows or two-storey houses, or those in light engineering, fabricating sheet metal, for instance, would benefit from this type of helmet.
Bump caps are ideal for protection when working in confined spaces where there is no risk of objects falling and hitting the head, but there is a risk of the worker walking into something and hurting themselves, such as when undertaking electrical wiring, insulating lofts, plumbing, or working underneath cars in tyre or exhaust servicing outlets or garages.
Dangers of under-specifying
The following are some real-life situations where people have written to JSP (NB there are pictures of both of these in a ppt presentation). In one case, an operative lost control of a high-powered hose he was using to clean drains wearing a lightweight helmet, when he should have been wearing a helmet that exceeded EN397. The hose came away from its coupling, swung round violently and hit him very hard on the side of the head. He was hospitalised for two weeks.
People are often hit by sharp objects that can cut like knives through butter through an inappropriate helmet if they fall. At Balfour Beatty Dutco in Dubai in 2007, a worker was fitting cabling whilst standing on a scaffold. Some of the sharp-edged trunking came loose and fell nearly 40 feet, hitting him in the forehead. The man survived because he was wearing the correct helmet.
Dangers of over-specifying
Trying to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut and specifying a helmet that offers too high a level of protection can also be dangerous. If a worker is wearing a top-of-the range EN14052 helmet with side protection in circumstances where there is only a risk of bumping their head, they may keep hitting their head against objects because the helmet is higher than a bump cap, so will remove it, leaving them with no protection at all. The chances of workers being unprotected are much higher with an over-specified helmet than if the right product is worn.
In another example, someone working in a confined space such as a roof space with a Standard EN397 helmet may bump against the rafters and joists, which would not happen if they were wearing a low-profile EN812 bump cap. If they took the helmet off, they would be at risk of nails sticking out of the joist going into their skull.
If a worker was putting cabling in a gully in a street having been given a large EN14052 helmet, it will be a lot heavier than a Standard EN397 helmet. He may take if off and could therefore be at risk of passers-by kicking stones into the hole and hitting him on the head. If he had a lighter weight helmet he would be more likely to wear it.
Head protection is really very simple and effective if the correct helmet for the purpose is selected and the user trained on how to wear and care for it. Reputable and responsible manufacturers will happily provide this training and will also be members of the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF)’s Registered Safety Supplier Scheme. There is no excuse for not providing the right head protection for the right task.
By Matthew Judson, Director Respiratory & Technical Support, JSP