Tradecraft > Buyer's Guides

How to Choose a Hard Hat

Job sites are dangerous — that's just how it is. With the right protective equipment, though, you can greatly mitigate many of the hazards that come with a hard day's work. One of the most ubiquitous pieces of job site safety wear — the hard hat — is essential for a number of trades. Finding the right one for your work environment, though, is more complicated than it may seem.

In this guide, we lay out everything you need to know about choosing the perfect hard hat. We'll cover what a hard hat is made of and how they're designed to keep you safe. We'll also go over important OSHA and ANSI safety standards, hard hat care and maintenance, and we'll even cover a few hard hat-compatible accessories.

Anatomy of a Hard Hat

A hard hat is more than just a hard, plastic shell you wear on your head. A number of technological innovations come standard in modern hard hats — features that minimize damage from falling objects while maximizing comfort during long shifts. The two-tiered shell and suspension system is what is used in most hard hats on the market today.

Hard Hat Shell

The most prominent, visible feature of a hard hat is the shell — the protective exterior that acts as a type of armor against falling objects. There are a number of materials from which a hard hat shell may be made. The most common, though, are high-density polyethylene (HDPE), fiberglass, and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS).

HDPE is a great all-around hard hat material. A type of petroleum-based thermoplastic, it's resistant to impacts and chemicals, so it provides ample protection and long term durability. ABS is also a type of thermoplastic. It tends to be more lightweight than its HDPE counterpart and, as a result, is typically more expensive. Fiberglass, as its name implies, is a type of plastic that utilizes woven glass fibers as a means of reinforcement. It's strong and durable, but its best selling point is its heat resistance, making it an ideal material for unusually hot workplaces (like foundries).

When you ask someone to picture a hard hat, the first thing that typically comes to mind is a bright yellow hat on the head of a construction worker. While yellow is certainly the classic hard hat color, it's not the only one in use on job sites across the country. And, while there is no official industry standard that covers hard hat shell colors, the following list of color and occupation combinations acts as a good rule of thumb:

  • Yellow: general laborers
  • White: managers, architects, engineers, foremen, supervisors
  • Blue: electrical worker
  • Green: safety inspector, new worker
  • Brown: welders (or others working in high-heat trades)
  • Orange: road crews, new workers, visitors

Full-Brim Hard Hats vs. Cap-style Hard Hats

Aside from materials and colors, the last thing to consider about a hard hat shell is the shape of the shell itself. There are two common styles you'll come across when shopping for a hard hat. Full-brim hard hats feature a brim that encircles the shell of the hat (much like a tophat), while cap-style hard hats come with a kind of bill that extends from the front of the hat (similar to a baseball cap).

The brim of a full-brim hard hat offers plenty of shade from the sun and a bit of cover from the rain. Most hard hats, though, are designed as the traditional, tried-and-true cap style. The bill also offers sun and rain protection. The main reason workers prefer a cap-style hard hat, though, is because they can be worn backwards. With the bill out of the way, workers find that they have much better upward visibility, which is vital on construction sites and carpentry jobs.

Hard Hat Suspension

The other major component of a hard hat, the suspension, sits inside the shell and is designed to be wrapped around the wearer's head so the hat stays in place. Hard hats are one-size-fits-most, and suspensions are adjustable to accommodate different sized heads.There are two types of suspension adjustment systems: the ratchet system, and the pin lock system.

The ratchet system works simply enough. There's a knob on the hat's suspension that you turn one way to tighten the strap and the other way to loosen it. The pin lock system works more like a snapback baseball cap. There's a series of buttons on the strap that snap into each other to adjust your fit. The adjustable suspension style you choose is mostly a matter of preference (although ratchet-style systems tend to offer a bit more of a precise fit).

When it comes to finding the right hard hat, be sure to keep an eye out for one with a suspension system that offers additional padding. Hard hats are mandatory safety wear on many jobs, and if you're going to be required to wear one for hours on end every day, you may as well make sure it's as comfortable as possible.

How Does a Hard Hat Work?

The way a hard hat offers protection from collisions and falling objects is simple but vitally effective. The shell, made from its hard, impact-resistant material, provides the first layer of protection from whatever's colliding with it. From there, the suspension system takes over, absorbing and dissipating energy from the impact. According to the National Safety Council, there were more than 65,000 cases involving days away from work due to workplace head injuries in 2012. Hard hats are designed with safety in mind, so it's important to wear one, especially if your job requires one.

OSHA and ANSI Hard Hat Standards

As with all things related to on-the-job safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) have outlined specific standards regarding safety headwear. In short, OSHA administers the regulations, and ANSI provides the means to follow those regulations.

There are two OSHA guidelines that govern the use of hard hats on the job: CFR 1910.135, which outlines hard hat requirements for general industry workers, and 29 CFR 1926.100, which covers head protection requirements for construction, demolition and renovation workers. Don't worry about reading through the regulations, though. Just keep in mind that if you work in any of the following conditions, you'll need protective headwear:

  • When there is danger of head injuries from impacts (by bumping your head)
  • When the potential to be struck by falling or flying objects is present
  • When electrical shocks and/or burns to the head are possible

By OSHA requirements, your employer must provide you with a hard hat that meets the appropriate safety specifications. Many employees prefer to buy their own headwear that fits their comfort and style, though. Just be sure yours meets the safety requirements.

ANSI Z89.1 goes into more detail about hard hat safety requirements and standards. The documentation divides hard hats up into three types (that indicate a hard hat's level of impact protection) and two classes (that indicate a hard hat's degree of electrical performance).

Hard Hat Types

There are two types of hard hats according to ANSI regulations: Type I and Type II. Type I hard hats are designed to offer protection only from impacts to the top of the head. Type I hard hats are more common in American workplaces. Type II hard hats are engineered to provide protection from impacts both to the top and sides of the head, and are more common on European job sites.

Hard Hat Classes

ANSI Z89.1 lays out three classes of hard hats: Class C (Conductive) hard hats, Class G (General) hard hats, and Class E (Electrical) hard hats. Class C is the simplest — these hard hats offer no level of electrical protection. Due to differences in material from their electrical hazard-safe counterparts, they may offer better impact protection in general (but not necessarily in all cases).

Class G hard hats are engineered to reduce exposure to low-voltage conductors. They're designed to offer dielectric protection up to 2,200 volts. It's important to note that this level of voltage protection is designated to the head only, not the user's whole body.

Class E hard hats offer the highest level of electrical protection. They're engineered to reduce exposure to high-voltage conductors. They're designed to offer dielectric protection up to 20,000 volts. Keep in mind that, like Class G hard hats, that level of voltage protection is limited to the head only — not the entire body.

Hard Hat Maintenance

As hard hats are designed to protect arguably the most valuable and vulnerable part of your body, it's important to maintain them properly and to replace them when they're no longer fit for work. Here are some good hard hat maintenance and replacement tips to follow.

How Often Should You Replace Your Hard Hat?

As a general rule, you should replace the suspension of your hard hat once a year, and you should replace the entire hat every five years. Of course, this differs from job to job and from industry to industry. For instance, if you work in high temperatures or near abrasive chemicals, you may have to replace your entire hard hat as often as every two years. It's also vital to replace your hard hat after it takes damage from an impact.

How to Inspect Your Hard Hat for Damage

Due to regular wear and tear, improper storage or any number of other factors, a hard hat can turn brittle or damaged, rendering it unusable and even dangerous. Be sure to inspect your hard hat each time you use it, checking it for penetration, cracks, knicks, dents and fatigue due to rough treatment.

Here's a good way to test the structural integrity of your hard hat: hold it in both hands and squeeze it. If you hear any cracking, creaking or any other unusual sounds, that's a sign that it's in pretty bad shape and will likely need to be replaced. Since OSHA has no written expiration requirements or time periods, it's best to refer to the manufacturer to determine whether or not your hard hat needs to be replaced.

How to Clean and Store a Hard Hat

To ensure your hard hat remains structurally sound, be sure to store it out of direct sunlight and away from solvents and abrasive chemicals. If you need to clean your hard hat, wash it with mild soap and water. It's best to let the shell air dry instead of rubbing it dry with a towel, if you can avoid it.

Can (or Should) You Place Labels on Your Hard Hat?

While ANSI regulations don't specifically prohibit placing adhesive stickers or labels on a hard hat, OSHA CFR 1910.132 says that all PPE must be "maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition." In a 2009 letter of interpretation, OSHA went a step further, stating that labels or paints added to a hard hat could potentially eliminate electrical hazard protections or conceal defects, cracks or other damage to the shell that would be otherwise readily identifiable. OSHA concluded that:

  • Any labels and/or paints must comply with manufacturer instructions
  • Employers must be able to demonstrate that any added labels do not affect the hard hat's reliability or the ability to identify defects in the hard hat's shell

Provided your labels meet those requirements, they are allowed to bse used. Common types of applicable labels include name tags (which can help quickly identify employees in case of emergencies), certificates (to indicate whether or not someone is authorized to be in a certain area), or the wearer's job title.

Hard Hat Accessories

Since laborers of all kinds often require additional head and facewear, it's important to understand what is (or isn't) compatible with hard hats. Some styles of hard hats are designed specifically to accommodate hearing protection. Other applicable accessories may include bandanas, winter liners and hoods, as long as they fit under the hard hat. Note that you shouldn't wear a baseball cap and a hard hat together, as the cap can interfere with the suspension's ability to absorb impacts.

Many occupations require hard hats, and, if yours does, it's important to understand both their safety requirements and safety features. Once you do, the rest depends wholly on your environment. Make sure you find a style that's fit for your job and the way you work. And, when it's time to replace your hard hat, revisit this guide to make sure you find the right one again.

Did you find this article helpful?