Hard hats to helmets: How Skanska, Clark are improving workers’ last line of defense

May 24, 2019

Most forms of personal protective equipment and the ANSI standards associated with them have evolved to keep risks to construction workers to a minimum. Gloves have become increasingly cut resistant, hard-toed boots have replaced standard work boots and some workers have retired their high-visibility tee shirts for reflective vests. But the most iconic protective item, the hard hat, hasn’t significantly changed in its design in the 100 years since it debuted.


Hard hats are extremely effective at protecting workers in the event of an object hitting them from above, and the American National Standards Institute’s Z89.1-2014 guidance on industrial head protection thoroughly addresses this risk. What it doesn’t account for, though, is a falling worker.


Falls are the No. 1 cause of death in the industry, representing more than half of fatal work-related traumatic injuries. Not only that, construction workers sustain more traumatic brain injuries than employees in any other type of U.S. workplace, according to a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health study.


When an employee slips, trips or falls, his or her hard hat can come off before it’s needed most, on impact. Recognizing this unnecessary risk, some general contractors have started switching to helmets, which they say are better suited for falls and other types of accidents.


Protection when all else fails


After a successful trial run of Kask helmets on a Washington, D.C., project, Jason Timmerman, environmental health and safety director at Skanska USA Commercial Development, kicked off a formal six-week pilot in 2017 across Skanska’s four business units, surveying workers at various points in the process.


Employees started warming up to the helmets at the pilot’s midpoint, Timmerman said, and by the final survey, “I literally had nothing but rave reviews … that said they felt safer wearing this product.” Skanska USA’s safety leadership is now letting the program grow organically, he said, and business units can receive support to deploy as many helmets as they want. They’ve been used frequently across D.C. projects and mandated on the I-5/SR-16 project in Tacoma, Washington, as well as the SFO AirTrain project at San Francisco International Airport.


Changing perceptions


While both Randall and Timmerman said they hope other contractors will follow suit, they admit that cost is a barrier. A Kask helmet starts at around $97 and can go up to $150 with a visor and other accessories. In comparison, the MSA V-Gard hats that Skanska had used previously were around $20. The contractor points out in a case study that the warranty and shelf life of Kask helmets, however, just about doubles that of the V-Gard hats.


Another barrier is the sentimentality attached to a hard hat. Workers take pride in the wear and tear on their hats, as well as stickers which become a sort of “status symbol” denoting their experience, past projects, training, trade or union, the Skanska study noted. They might resist starting from scratch, especially with unconventional-looking head protection. Read the full article here


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