The Ultimate Guide to Hard Hats

If you work at or visit a construction site where head injuries can result from falling objects or heavy equipment, you’ll need to wear a hard hat.

That’s because there are dozens of rules from ANSI and OSHA to help keep workers safe on the job. To help navigate all of those safety rules and regulations relating to head gear, below we have answered or addressed some of the most-asked questions about hard hats to help ensure your safety on the job.

Hard Hat Basics

Today’s hard hats are made from high-density polyethylene (PE) plastic. PE has a high strength-to-density ratio and is widely used in everything from plastic bottles to bulletproof vests. The structure of a hard hat consists of two parts; the outer shell and the interior suspension, or harness, which is made of woven strips of nylon webbing and molded bands of PE, vinyl, or nylon. This suspension harness is adjustable to assure a proper fit.

How Do Hard Hats Work?

Hard hats are designed to absorb and spread the force of impact. The hard, outer shell deflects the blow, but the force is dispersed through the interior suspension bands. Since the suspension keeps the shell surface off the wearer’s head so the impact is absorbed by the helmet and not the skull.

Hard Hat Types and Classes

All hard hats are not created equal. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) developed a classification system to make sure the headwear meets the demands of the job. Being aware of the types and classes of hard hats will ensure you have maximum protection against the daily risks at a construction site.

ANSI Types of Hard Hats

The type of hard hat is determined by the type of protection it provides.

  • Type I Hard Hats offer protection only from impact to the top of the head.
  • Type II Hard Hats offer protection from impact to the top and sides of the head.


ANSI Classes of Hard Hats

In addition to impact and penetration resistance, hard hats are tested for electrical resistance, heat and flammability, and water absorption.

ANSI standards distinguish three helmet classes:

  • Class G (General) Hard Hats offer protection against impact, penetration, and low-voltage electrical conductors. To meet the Class G certification requirements, the hard hats must withstand 2,200 volts of electrical charge.
  • Class E (Electrical) Hard Hats offer protection against impact, penetration, and high-voltage electrical conductors. Class E hats are proof-tested to 20,000 volts.
  • Class C (Conductive) Hard Hats offer protection against impact and penetration but do not offer protection against electric shock. In fact, Class C hard hats are sometimes made of aluminum, which conducts electricity and would compound electrical shock.

It’s important to note that the proof-tested range of volts is for classification purposes only and is not meant to imply the wearer would not be affected by the voltage.

Although manufacturers typically test and certify their products, employers and employees need to make sure their hard hats are safe, free from defect, and meet the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). A hard hat that meets ANSI standards is OSHA compliant.

Hard Hat Color Designations

Neither OSHA nor ANSI classify hard hats specifically by color. However, many companies employ a color system and over time, an informal color rating system has developed.

As a general rule:

  • Yellow hats are worn by general laborers.
  • Blue hats are worn by electrical workers.
  • Green hats are worn by new or probationary employees.
  • White hats are reserved for supervisors and visitors to the worksite.
  • Further, some employers require hard hats be painted in bright, high-visibility shades, and others require workers to add labels to offer basic information or reflective tape to increase night visibility.




Hard Hat Shell and Suspension Expiration

Hard hats expire. The average period of service use is 2 to 5 years, but most manufacturers recommend that the suspension harness be replaced every year. The longest period a hat should be worn is four to five years from the manufacture date.

ANSI standards require that the manufacture date is printed on the hard hat along with the manufacturer name, ANSI standard designation, and the appropriate ANSI class designation (Class G, E, or C).  Additionally, it must be noted if the helmet can be worn forwards or backward (this is done by a symbol consisting of two arrows curving to form a circle) and it must be noted if the hat offers low or high-temperature protection (LT or HT), or is high visibility (HV).

If your hard hat does not have the required ANSI information, there is no sure way to know the protection it offers. It may not comply with ANSI or OSHA regulations, and more importantly, it may not offer the protection you need to keep you safe on the construction site.

Additionally, workers should always record the date they first use the hard hat with a permanent marker. This information may be needed in case of injury or accident.

Service use guidelines do not guarantee safety. Regardless of age, if a hat falls more than 10 feet or has been struck forcibly, it should be replaced immediately. Additionally, everyday wear and tear and the ultraviolet rays in sunlight can degrade plastic hard hats. Fortunately, this type of damage is easy to see.  A new or good-condition hard hat will have a glossy finish. If it loses its shine or begins to flake or look chalky, the shell is compromised. Once a hat starts to look damaged, it probably is damaged and should be replaced immediately.

Taking care of your headgear will maximize its service use. You should not leave your hat in the car when you’re not working because of possible UV damage. When not in use, store it in a clean, dry setting. Dirt and grime will eventually degrade the finish, so you should clean your hat regularly with mild soap and warm water (other cleaning products may contain ingredients that negatively affect its integrity). Painting your hat or making other alterations can degrade the shell, diminish the protection, and shorten the lifespan of the unit.

What is the difference between a full brim and a partial brim hat?  

  • Full Brim Hard Hats are just that: head protection with an edge that goes around the entire headgear. The benefits of this type of hat are based primarily in added coverage. In addition to safeguarding your head from falling objects, they offer more sun protection to your face, ears, neck, and shoulders.
  • The Partial Brim or Cap Hard Hat offers advantages too. The design is like a ball cap with a shorter brim. Cap hard hats are either slotted or non-slotted.
  • Slotted Caps have openings above the ears and these areas are used to hold work gear like flashlight holders, hearing protection, and retractable face shields.
  • Non-Slot Designs do not accommodate the extra gear but commonly include a trough to keep rain from running down your back.

How to Inspect Your Hard Hat

You should regularly inspect your gear to make sure it’s structurally sound and performs in the way it is designed. 

  • First Time Inspection.  Before using your hard hat, check to see that you have the right type and class for your specific work. Always assemble the apparatus in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications and remember any alterations may affect its integrity. Once the hat is assembled, make sure the harness fits as designed. Always be sure to maintain the recommended clearance between the shell and suspension. The harness should be tight but it shouldn’t pinch, bind, irritate your skin, or cause headaches.
  • Regular Inspection.You should inspect your headgear for damage every time you wear it. Cracks and gouges could easily mean your hat will not work as designed. Chalking or flaking can be symptomatic of sunlight (UV) damage. If there are any visible signs of damage to the shell, you should immediately replace the unit. Also, be sure to examine the harness as well.  The suspension must be connected in all slots and the interior straps must be kept in good shape at all times.

How to Wear a Hard Hat

Wearing a hard hat can protect you from serious injury or death, but only if you wear it the right way. Otherwise, your headgear can actually do more harm than good.

The following guidelines should always be followed:

  • The inside of the hat offers as much protection as the outside as long as the harness keeps the shell one inch off your head.
  • You should never place anything above or below the suspension straps since this will reduce the clearance and make falling objects hurt a whole lot more!
  • Never alter the shell or suspension (such as drilling holes in the hat).
  • Never wear your hard hat backwards (unless you see those two arrows curving to form a circle).
  • While you can mix and match shells and suspensions, always be sure the harness complies with the manufacturer’s specific shell guidelines.
  • Don’t wear a ball cap under your hard hat. Not only will this affect the clearance ratio, but many ball caps have a metal button on top, which will conduct electricity and reduce the hat’s resistance qualities.
  • Hooded sweatshirts, winter liners, and cooling headwear should not affect the performance of a hard hat if these products are worn properly, fitted smoothly on the head and do not diminish the required clearance.

What about Placing Stickers and Labels on Hard Hats?

As a general rule, it’s okay to apply pressure-sensitive stickers or tape with self-adhesive backing to your hard hat as long you keep them at least a half inch from the edge of the hat. ANSI standards do not prohibit hard hat stickers or labels. OSHA standards don’t either, although they specify all headgear must be “maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition.”

OSHA points out that labels and paints may eliminate electrical resistance and can possibly “conceal defects, cracks, penetration, and any damage that would be otherwise readily identifiable.” OSHA goes on to explain that any labels or paint used on hard hats must comply with manufacturer’s instructions, or the employer must demonstrate that the labels do not “reduce the ability to identify defects.”

Aside from personalization, many workers place labels with their names, titles or certifications on their hard hats. Contact information can help with identification in emergency situations and certifications can attest that workers are authorized to be in a restricted work area.

When are hard hats required?

OSHA stipulates “each affected employee shall wear protective helmets when working in areas where there is a potential for injury to the head from falling objects.” This regulation also covers work environments where electrical hazards are present: “protective helmets designed to reduce electrical shock hazard shall be worn by each such affected employee when near exposed electrical conductors which could contact the head.”

OSHA defines affected employees as “employees who are exposed to the hazard(s) identified as a violation in a citation.” The “affected employees” definition was added to clarify that the term, as used in OSHA regulations, applies specifically to those employees put at risk by an identified safety or health hazard cited by an OSHA Compliance Officer.

In a nutshell, if a worker can get hit on the head from falling objects, strike his or her head on fixed workplace structures, or if his or her head can meet up with electrical current, employers must issue hard hats and make sure employees wear them on the job at all times.

Occupations That Require a Hard Hat

OSHA does not list specific occupations or applications where a hard hat is required. Need is based on job responsibilities and head-injury risk. Clearly, some occupations require hard hat protection, including but not limited to:

  • Warehouse workers
  • General laborers
  • Electricians
  • Carpenters
  • Utility workers
  • Mechanics
  • Freight  handlers
  • Loggers
  • Plumbers
  • Pipe Fitters
  • Assemblers
  • Packers
  • Wrappers

ANSI’s New Performance Criteria  

ANSI updated its performance criteria for head protection in 2014 by adding three main amendments:

  1. Accessory or component manufacturers must prove that their components do not cause the helmets to fail. Helmet accessory or component suppliers must provide justification upon request that their product would not cause the helmet to fail the requirements of the Head Protection Standard.
  2. New descriptive language in the “Instructions and Markings” clarifies a hard hat’s “useful service life” and establishes that it’s solely up to the manufacturers if they choose to include specific service life in terms of years. They are not required to do so.
  3. An amendment to the Higher Temperature (HT) section. Now HT-rated hard hats must withstand temperatures of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit opposed to the previous 120 degrees.

OSHA recognized the 2014 changes to ANSI. In general, OSHA and ANSI regulations regarding hard hats align in key points. Compliance in one area typically equates to compliance in the other.

Hard Hat Sizing Chart

Centimeters Inches
6-1/2 52 20-1/2
6-5/8 53 20-7/8
6-3/4 54 21-1/4
6-7/8 55 21-5/8
7 56 22
7-1/8 57 22-3/8
7-1/4 58 22-3/4
7-3/8 59 23-1/8
7-1/2 60 23-1/2
7-5/8 61 23-7/8
7-3/4 62 24-1/4
7-7/8 63 24-5/8
8 64 25
8-1/2 68 26-1/2

What Should You Do?

Making sure you have the right hat for the job—and making sure your hat is always in good shape will ensure you have the best protection possible against workplace injuries. Be safe, be smart, and go home every day after work with your good looks and good health intact. If you have any other questions, feel free to reach out to us!



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