Carbon Fiber Hard Hats vs. Fiberglass Hard Hats vs. Plastics

What’s the best hard hat material for your job? 

In construction, linework, mining, and other skilled trades, the importance of hard hats isn’t up for debate. They provide the first line of defense against falling objects, impacts, burns, or shocks. But with choices ranging from carbon fiber hard hats to fiberglass hard hats to plastics, how do you determine the best hard hat material for keeping you safe and comfortable?

The answer: any OSHA-compliant hard hat specifically rated for your job and its risks will work. But from there, the best hard hat material depends on preferences, slight differences, and where you’re using it.

While all hard hats must meet current ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standards for safety, the materials they are made from can still vary a bit in terms of strength, electrical conductivity, weight, and durability.

In other words, the best hard hat material for a welder exposed to extreme heat may not be the best choice for a construction worker who regularly uses electrical tools or temporary power sources.

This blog examines the pros and cons of different hard hat materials to help you make the best choice for your specific needs. Feel free to read the entire piece or skip down to a section:

The best hard hat material: a brief history

Now one of the most recognizable pieces of safety equipment worldwide, hard hats have come a long way since dock workers smeared hardening tar on their hats to protect their heads from tools and objects falling off ships over a century ago.

As city infrastructure projects grew in scope and buildings scraped the skies, returning World War I veteran Edward Bullard noted that workers had little or no protective headgear. Originally a mining equipment manufacturer, his father’s E.D. Bullard Company peddled a not-so-durable leather mining cap.

The effectiveness of the metal helmets donned by soldiers in the war inspired the son to design the first patented hard hat. Recognizing that metal was too expensive and bulky for peacetime workers, he fashioned a protective “hard-boiled hat” out of heavy steamed canvas, black paint, and shellac. An inner suspension was soon added to absorb the force of objects hitting the helmet.

By 1931, hard hat use was more than a suggestion, with the construction of the Hoover Dam marking the first time an employer purchased and mandated headgear for employees. More construction projects followed suit, prompting manufacturers to search for quality, durable, and long-lasting materials to create safer working environments.

Over the years, workers have sported hard hats made from aluminum, fiberglass, and thermoplastics — continuously improving protection and electrical non-conductivity. Today, plastics like high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) are commonly used to meet stringent ANSI safety standards, as are fiberglass and carbon fiber hard hats.

Hat crown patent diagram

The "Hat Crown," patented in 1929, revolutionized the safety product industry and earned Edward Bullard a spot in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Image source: Smithsonian Magazine

Hard hat 101: what does the law require?

Before OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) was established in 1970, construction companies enforced their own PPE (personal protective equipment) requirements. But today, Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations (29 CFR aka CFR Title 29) mandates specific rules for head protection to create a work environment safer from known dangers or hazards.

As with many of its standards, OSHA mandates that companies follow guidelines set forth by ANSI to achieve compliance with head protection regulations. Simply put, OSHA establishes the rules the trades must follow, and ANSI/ISEA Z89.1-2014 details the specific standards to comply.

OSHA and ANSI logos

ANSI covers performance and testing requirements for hard hats, as well as detailing different types and classifications. Essentially, basic requirements mandate that head protection in construction, mining, logging, ironwork, and other industrial roles:

  • Resists penetration by falling or stationary objects.
  • Deflects blows to the head.
  • Absorbs shock caused by blows to the head.
  • Is water-resistant and slow to burn.
  • Insulates against electric shock, when needed.

Manufacturers must identify if a hard hat is Type I, designed to cushion blows to the top of the head, or Type II, mitigating the impact of top and lateral hits. They also must indicate the hard hat’s class, or ability to absorb electrical shock:

  • Class G (General) is rated for protection against 2,200 volts. Appropriate for general construction work, these hard hats provide good impact and penetration protection but limited voltage protection.
  • Class E (Electrical) is rated for protection against 20,000 volts, protecting against high-voltage shock as well as impacts and penetration.
  • Class C (Conductive) offers no electrical protection. While conductive materials can provide more breathability while protecting against impact and penetration, they can only be used by workers with no standard risk of encountering electrical hazards.

So, what’s the best hard hat material for your needs?

It’s vital to make sure any hard hat you select meets the ANSI Z89.1 standard. For instance, lower-profile "bump caps" often look like hard hats, but they are never intended for use when job site hazards demand ANSI-certified protection.

But there’s no doubt some materials that meet specific ANSI requirements are a little stronger or lighter than others or offer protection against electrical shock — and those factors can impact your choice.

Read on for a deeper look at four common hard hat materials:

Carbon fiber hard hat pattern

1. Carbon fiber hard hats: extremely strong, light, and long-lasting

Pros: Carbon fiber hard hats have exploded in popularity thanks to their high tensile strength and stiffness, exceptional chemical resistance, and light weight.

Made from strong, crystalline filaments of carbon that can be thinner than a strand of human hair, the material is generally laid over a mold and coated with resin or plastic to take a permanent shape. Besides hard hats, carbon fiber is favored by engineers and designers in industries like aerospace, automotive, the military, and recreation for manufacturing everything from airplane wings to bicycle frames.

In fact, even though the weight of carbon fiber hard hats approaches the most lightweight plastic hard hats, the material is touted as five times stronger and twice as stiff as steel — providing one of the best strength-to-weight ratios in the industry. Carbon fiber hard hats also naturally mitigate vibrations and impacts by dampening surrounding energy.

All in all, the strength of carbon fiber hard hats can offer great safety benefits on job sites with a high risk of overhead hazards, enabling them to withstand more force from head impacts. The lighter weight also minimizes strain on your neck or back during long shifts in physically demanding environments.

Since the material doesn’t heat up at temperatures below 350°F, these hard hats further deliver a low thermal expansion rating and good temperature tolerance. Not only does that provide a distinct advantage for staying cool in hot weather environments, but it also helps protect workers like welders regularly exposed to excessive heat on the job.

Cons: So, what’s the catch?

The super-tough material is electrically conductive and can be brittle on its own, so it’s often combined with resin or another non-conductive material to create a high level of impact protection and improve electrical resistance.

If your job exposes you to electrical hazards, be sure to double-check the ANSI electrical class of any carbon fiber hard hat you consider because they rate Class C (conduct electricity) if no other materials are added. Look for Class G or E rating, depending on your needs for electrical protection.

The labor-intensive manufacturing process of carbon fiber hard hats can also drive up the price compared to other materials.

2. Fiberglass hard hats: very high heat resistance 

Pros: If you’re a welder, metalworker, forger, or otherwise in a job exposed to large doses of radiant heat, protecting your head with a fiberglass hard hat can be a wise choice. With high heat resistance that can reach 500°F, according to some manufacturers, fiberglass hard hats can withstand temperatures that many other materials cannot.

The excessive heat tolerance and anti-magnetic properties of fiberglass also make these helmets popular in the mining industry.

Fiberglass is created by bonding glass fibers into laminates with resin, with different resins used to make the final product stronger, tougher, and less brittle. Like carbon fiber, fiberglass is substantially stronger than steel — but carbon fiber is more than 20% stronger than the best fiberglass and boasts a strength-to-weight ratio that’s roughly double.

On the other hand, fiberglass is more flexible and less brittle than pure carbon fiber, enabling it to be molded into virtually any style without impacting its mechanical strength. Chemical resistance is similar for both materials, but fiberglass is non-conductive to electricity — combining with resin to typically create Class G hard hats.

Most workers also find fiberglass hard hats pretty lightweight, although they tend to be a little heavier than head protection made from carbon fiber or plastics like ABS.

Cons: Since fiberglass hard hats have less rigidity than some other materials, the energy distribution from a forceful impact might not be as efficient. (That said, ANSI-compliant means they still do handle impacts well!) Fiberglass also may contract in cold temperatures, so these hard hats may not be the best choice for environments where extreme cold is a factor.

Man holding HDPE hard hat

3. HDPE hard hats: low-cost, high-voltage protection

Pros: Reasonably tough and easy to manufacture, High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) hard hats rank among the most popular and least expensive options sold today. This thermoplastic material earns high marks for strength, popping up in products ranging from food and beverage containers to snowboards to plastic surgery materials.

Comprised of a material first used in the 1930s to create high-frequency radar cables, HDPE hard hats provide high-impact protection and good resistance to heat and chemicals. The non-conductive material also can protect workers against exposure to high voltages, earning a Class E rating when manufactured properly.

HDPE materials can vary in flexibility, but hard hat manufacturers rely on a high-density version to form a protective shell. Despite its strength, HDPE is typically one of the most lightweight hard hat options: boasting a high strength-to-density ratio that enables an HDPE milk jug weighing a mere two ounces to support two gallons of milk.

Cons: HDPE hard hats can weather poorly with frequent use. Unfortunately, that can make them sensitive to stress cracking.

4. ABS hard hats: the lightest weight

Pros: Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) also ranks as one of the most popular hard hat materials, delivering comfort during long work shifts with an extremely light weight.

The average ABS hard hat weighs 13 ounces — significantly less than a pound. By comparison, many HDPE hard hats weigh about 18 ounces and carbon fiber hard hats 17 ounces, both slightly more than a pound. (Note that those numbers vary based on factors beyond the material, such as the hard hat suspension).

Structurally stiff and sturdy, this thermoplastic polymer provides good durability and impact protection and is used as the foundational material in toys, furniture, and an array of other items that must stand up to hard use.

As a non-conductive material, ABS also provides excellent protection against high-voltage hazards, enabling a Class E hard hat rating when appropriately manufactured. Since ABS is lighter than HDPE, it’s easier to mold into complex shapes as well.

Cons: While ABS is a tough material, HDPE hard hats perform a bit better in terms of impact strength, tensile strength, and strength-to-weight ratios. And while they are still pretty inexpensive, higher material costs make ABS hard hats slightly more expensive than HDPE hard hats.

ABS hard hats also don’t have high solvent resistance, so regular exposure to certain paints, glues, or solvent-based adhesives can impact their safety properties. Personalizing them with decorations that involve such materials can present a safety risk. Regular exposure to sunlight can also change impact strength over time.

Choosing the best hard hat material doesn’t have to be daunting

Hard hats are must-have PPE in various industries. In tandem with other safety provisions, wearing them has helped reduce worker deaths by roughly two-thirds since 1970, when OSHA rules first made protective headgear mandatory. In fact, some research shows that OSHA-compliant hard hats can reduce some forms of acceleration by as much as 95%.

With so many different materials available today, selecting the best one can seem challenging. But here’s the good news: as long as any hard hat is specifically ANSI-rated for impacts (Type I or Type II) or the electrical resistance your job calls for (C, G, or E), it will perform as needed.

From there, choosing the right material is all about considering other pros and cons, such as minor differences in strength, weight, and temperature resistance, along with personal preferences.

Want to learn more about the best hard hats in the construction industry? Check out more posts on the Hard Hat Veterans blog, where we explore custom hard hats, hard hats for specific jobs like miners and line workers, what ANSI requires, and much more.