December 22, 2022 6 min read
Custom hard hats are in-demand, as many companies want to brand their safety gear, and workers like to show off some personal style. But you can’t just paint hard hats with any old substance or apply a ton of stickers to customize them.
Both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and ANSI Z89.1, the go-to safety standard for hard hats, have rules against modifying hard hats in ways that prevent inspecting them for damage or degrade their shells.
Read on to learn the guidelines for ensuring custom hard hat performance, plus the main customization options, including decals, pad printing, and hydro dipped hard hats.
A quick online search shows many hard hats painted with wild graphics or completely covered in stickers. But only some of these helmets comply with rules from OSHA and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Why?
Essentially, it's because either too much material is covering the shell or the adhesives or paints could have ingredients that weaken it. OSHA mandates that various industries use protective headgear that meets the safety testing and performance requirements in ANSI Z89.1, American National Standard for Industrial Head Protection. And while ANSI Z89.1 doesn’t totally ban stickers or aftermarket paint, it offers some prominent warnings:
Caution should be exercised if shells are to be painted, since some paints and thinners may attack and damage the shell and reduce protection. The helmet manufacturer should be consulted with regard to paints or cleaning materials.
Helmet decorations should not be used to obscure dents, cracks, non-manufactured holes, other penetrations, burns or other damages.
OSHA guidance echoes these rules and defers to helmet manufacturers to approve paint and accessories, noting that those companies “usually provide very specific instructions regarding paints, stickers, or decals that will not negatively affect the performance.” More OSHA perspective:
OSHA would consider painting or placing adhesive stickers acceptable if the manufacturer authorizes the alteration or the employer can demonstrate that the reliability of the helmet is not affected by the paint or the adhesive on the stickers; and the paint or placement of stickers would not reduce the ability to identify defects (i.e., use of see-through stickers) or other conditions that would indicate a reduced reliability.
So, the bottom line:
There’s mixed news on that second point. First, many manufacturers, such as Honeywell and MSA, either warn against using any aftermarket paint or have detailed conditions for doing it. But many also provide in-house customization options that are OSHA and ANSI-compliant.
So, be sure to review the manufacturer’s instructions for adding paint or stickers, and feel free to ask companies — aftermarket or otherwise — to verify that their ingredients don’t impair hard hat protection.
Now, let's look at some of the most popular options for creating custom hard hats.
The US flag on this hard hat might be a decal, but it also could be a two-color pad-print.
Many companies sell stickers and decals intended for hard hats, often with customized designs, messages, and reflective options. And the rules for choosing a company and a sticker, plus applying decals, are pretty simple.
As mentioned above, stickers should not contain harmful materials and adhesives. For example, Honeywell notes that metallic stickers may impair a hard hat’s electrical protection properties. In contrast, safety sticker companies say that “pressure-sensitive adhesive, non-metallic labels, or tape with self-adhesive backing are standard on most of today's hard hats.”
In addition, any decals should be “conformable,” meaning they can stick to curved shells without bubbling or crinkling, plus hold up well under sunlight, heat, and ANSI Z89.1-approved cleaning with warm soapy water.
Finally and most importantly: stickers should be “at least three-quarters of an inch from the helmet's edge," and don’t apply too many of them!
Those hard hats totally covered in collectible decals may look cool, but many are OHSA violations. The wearer simply won't be able to see many cracks, dents, or abrasions on the shell during an inspection. And any sign of damage means the headgear's protection may be compromised, and the hard hat needs to be replaced ASAP.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of stickers is that they're inexpensive, ranging from about $5 for a multipack to $9 apiece for some durable safety stickers.
Pad-printing, also known as tampography, “takes a 2-D image from a laser engraved (etched) printing plate (also called cliché) and transfers it to a 3-D object.” This specialized process uses a conformable plate that allows printing on "difficult-shaped products” where other methods might not stick or look good, including the rounded shells of hard hats.
This video shows 5-color pad-printing of a standard hard hat:
Pad printing is used by many hard hat manufacturers to customize their headgear, as well as aftermarket printers. It’s great for adding custom logos or safety and workplace information to hard hats, and many manufacturers offer this service as an add-on expense. The cost varies based on the number of helmets ordered, the number of colors, and how many graphics are added.
For example, 3M offers custom printing options on its hard hats that range from an extra $8 per helmet for printing one single-color logo to $44 per hard hat with four four-color logos.
Note that there may be cheaper aftermarket options, but getting custom hard hats from a manufacturer explicitly follows OSHA and ANSI Z89.1 rules. Employers and individual workers should contact aftermarket companies to verify that their ink and processes won't negatively impact the shells.
Hydro dipping, also called “water-transfer printing,” “immersion printing,” and “hydrographics,” is another printing process that specializes in marking 3-D objects.
Hydro-dippers print a specific design on a piece of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) paper and place the paper over a water container that's big enough to submerge the printed object. Water hydrates the PVA layer and causes it to melt (sometimes with added heat), leaving "a replication of the printed design floating on top of the water surface."
Printers then spray the design with an activator that liquefies the ink and carefully dip the object into the water, transferring the design. Finally, they clean up any residue and coat the object with polyurethane. Here's a video showing the process:
Hydro dipping allows printers to put highly detailed designs on objects of almost any shape and size, from hard hats to vehicles. Various printing and graphics companies that hydro dip hard hats explicitly say that the inks, materials, and process are safe for headgear and don't “interfere with any OSHA regulations.” This should mean that the ink and technique don't involve any chemicals that will degrade the shell.
But there remains one potential issue with many hydro-dipped hard hats, specifically those with wild colors and designs that cover the entire shell. Big, complex patterns may interfere with inspecting the helmet for cracks, dents, and abrasions. So, choose a design and hydro-dip with a bit of restraint and caution! Wearers should also ensure that hydro dipping isn't against company policy.
Almost anything can be hydro dipped as long as it can be submerged, such as this wheel rim. However, the problem with 'busy' designs like this on hard hats is that the paint job makes it hard to spot defects on the shell. Image source: Deeppaint via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Customizing hard hats is a great way to identify specific jobs, brand companies, or show off a little individual style. But workers and trade businesses should be mindful of the OSHA and ANSI rules and choose approved methods and materials.
The biggest rules of thumb: make sure any modification is company- or manufacturer-approved, and don’t go overboard with the stickers and designs.
To learn more about helmet rules and safety, read our blogs on hard hat care, maintenance, and inspections, when hard hats expire, and a summary of the ANSI Z89.1 standard. And bookmark the Hard Head Veterans blog to stay current on the science of head protection.