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February 17, 2023 7 min read
Hard hat colors span the rainbow, with many job sites assigning different hues to different types of workers and visitors. And while no official regulations set a hard hat color code that organizations must follow — other than rules governing what qualifies as “high visibility” — some best practices have become common across industries.
In this blog, we explore:
Since the 1931 Hoover Dam project marked the first time a construction company mandated protective headgear for employees, hard hats have become perhaps the most recognizable safety equipment worldwide.
Through Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations (29 CFR aka CFR Title 29), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) setsrules for head protection to create work environments safer from known dangers or hazards. The specific steps workplaces must follow to achieve compliance are detailed inANSI/ISEA Z89.1-2014, which covers hard hat classifications and performance and testing requirements.
Essentially, these rules ensure that head protection:
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 stop or conduct electricity.
OSHA and ANSI/ISEA Z89.1-2014 do not set rules for hard hat colors, however, except for some requirements and standards regarding high-visibility headgear. We'll cover them below. But first, here's why various job sites implement color codes without them being a legal requirement.
Construction, logging, public works, and other hard-hat-dependent organizations are free to choose any color they want for their job sites. But while no one faces fines for choosing random colors, following the generally accepted hard hat color code system is often a good idea.
Designating hard hat colors for specific jobs helps:
White hard hats are easy to spot, making it easy for workers to find supervisors when needed.
But while the right hard hat colors can make a job site run smoother, here’s an important safety tip:
Always purchase helmets in your desired colors from the manufacturer instead of painting them on your own.
Certain paints and stickers may contain chemicals that can damage or weaken a hard hat’s shell, decreasing its protective capabilities. In fact, most manufacturers forbid users from applying paint without explicit permission. Read more aboutwhen paint and stickers are acceptable in this blog.
The earliest hard hats came in a single color: black. But color options have expanded significantly since then, with modern safety helmets providing wearers with a rainbow of possibilities.
So, how do you know what color to choose? Here are the generally accepted hard hat color meanings:
High-visibility hard hats make workers easier to see, enhancing safety in low-visibility or chaotic environments. Whether an individual works in construction, a warehouse, or on a roadside public works project at night, easy-to-spot hard hat colors can protect them from collisions with onsite equipment or passing motorists.
In 2022, a whopping 64% of highway contractors reported crashes into their worksites.
OSHA acknowledges that high-visibility apparel can improve safety for most workers, but the agency only requires it for some individuals in certain environments. For example, OSHA only specifically mandates high visibility gear for “highway/road construction work zone employees … when they work as flaggers and when they are exposed to public vehicular traffic in the vicinity of excavations.”
Nevertheless, OSHA’s “General Duty Clause” (29 U.S.C. §654(a)(1)) really calls for high-visibility gear whenever individuals are “exposed to the danger of being struck by the vehicles operating near them.” And other hazards might reasonably apply. The General Duty Clause is a blanket rule that essentially requires employers to evaluate relevant, realistic risks and provide appropriate protection for their employees.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) also issues specific requirements, mandating high-visibility apparel for workers exposed to public traffic or construction vehicles.
In addition, it’s important to note that hard hats aren’t the only way to fulfill many high-visibility requirements. Reflective vests often serve this purpose—without or in conjunction with high-viz headgear. Nevertheless, some local and state regulations specifically require high-visibility hard hats. For instance, New York and Missouri mandate road crews wear high-visibility safety helmets and other high-viz apparel on the job.
Federal and some state and local regulations require high-visibility hard hats for workers exposed to traffic.
ANSI/ISEA Z89.1-2014 defines what qualifies as a high-visibility hard hat. To earn an “HV” marking that indicates ANSI compliance, hard hats must come in fluorescent yellow-green, orange-red, or red. They also must fall within the chromaticity range and meet or exceed luminance specifications in the chart below.
Chromaticity indicates color quality, and luminance helps measure brightness:
Table source: ANSI/ISEA Z89.1-2014
If state or local regulations don’t mandate specific high-visibility hard hat colors, consider your work environment (and OSHA’s General Duty Clause) to choose the best option. For instance, yellow-green can help roadway workers stand out on job sites littered with orange barrels and signs. On the other hand, orange can be a more visible choice for workers in densely wooded areas.
It’s vital to frequently check that prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light hasn’t caused a hard hat color to fade, compromising safety. Storing hard hats improperly—such as in the rear windows of vehicles—can speed degradation from the sun’s rays.
Implementing a hard hat color code system can improve safety and efficiency on a range of job sites. But choosing colors is only one consideration, and it never outweighs the importance of quality design and manufacturing, the right hard hat material, and other safety features that fit the specific type of work completed.
Understanding ANSI guidelines and closely evaluating available options can help you choose the best hard hat for the job.
Want to learn more about the best hard hats for your site? Check out the rest of the Hard Hats Veterans blog, where we cover the best hard hat materials, custom hard hats, ANSI/ISEA guidelines, and more.