May 23, 2021 7 min read
Construction can be a dangerous line of employment. Workers suffer traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) more than three times as often as those in other industries, and many of these injuries can cause life-long problems.
Hard hats provide a layer of protection. With proper care, a new construction helmet can keep your head safe for years. But wear and tear can significantly reduce a hard hat's lifespan—and some events, like an impact to the shell, call for immediate replacement.
So, how long is a hard hat good for? There are a few ways to think about this question:
To learn the answers in-depth, read on.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) interprets and enforces standards regarding well-being in the workplace—including personal protective equipment (PPE). Their rules require "protective helmets" for those working in areas where there is "a possible danger of head injury from impact, or from falling or flying objects," as well as environments where electrical shock or burns to the head may occur.
Does OSHA have rules regarding hard hat expiration dates? No.
But that doesn't mean that a decades-old helmet can remain in use. Employers must provide helmets that meet specific standards—specifically, those written by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in ANSI Z89.1. The earliest OSHA-approved standard was written in 1997. As such, helmets made before that date simply aren’t up to code.
Further, employers must make sure that every hard hat provides a minimum level of protection throughout its lifespan. Federal regulations state that personal protective equipment (including protective helmets) must be "maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition."
The word "reliable" covers a great deal: Hard hats must be inspected before each use and replaced "if they show signs of damage." Even slight deviations from manufacturers' instructions—such as adding the wrong type of sticker or decal—may compromise a hard hat's reliability (OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.132(a)).
This oil-stained, pitted, and cracked helmet obviously needs to be replaced.
Violations of OSHA rules can result in steep fines and even criminal penalties. Employers looking to avoid them have two options: Follow manufacturers' instructions or prove that a helmet remains "reliable" even when those instructions are ignored. And while there is no hard-and-fast OSHA hard hat expiration date, following manufacturers' recommended replacement timelines is the smart way to demonstrate compliance (and keep heads safe).
Wear, tear, and impact can significantly reduce hard hat life expectancy. But even well-cared-for construction helmets have an expiration date. Many manufacturers recommend removing hard hats from service five years after their first use. Support straps, meanwhile, should be replaced every year, even if they appear to be in good condition.
Each manufacturer provides its own guidelines regarding hard hat life expectancy. Many recommend a service life,calculating a hard hat expiration date based on the length of time since it was first used. (As such, users are encouraged to write the date inside of newly received helmets.)
But some instead suggest a storage life, which is based on how much time has passed since the helmet was manufactured.This gives even unused helmets a precise retirement date. And because manufacturers typically stamp the year and month of manufacture inside helmets' brims, that date can be easily determined.
This photo, taken from a recall notice published by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, shows a hard hat manufacturing date (left circle). The arrow points to the month, while the numbers on either side of the arrow ("1" and "7") indicate the year (2017). Image source:CPSC
There are good reasons to take service and shelf life seriously. While there are no studies establishing a link between hard hat expiration and injury, the materials used in most hard hat shells tend to grow fragile and inflexible over time. Aging helmets may become unable to withstand relatively mild impacts; eventually, even a hit from a dropped screwdriver or an all-thread rod may breach the shell.
And in the end, a hard hat's life expectancy—whether measured in service life or shelf life—is best treated as an upper limit. While well-maintained and carefully used headgear could provide adequate protection throughout that time, helmets faced with rougher treatment may need to be removed from service far sooner.
How long a hard hat is good for ultimately depends on how well it's treated. In particular, four forms of damage—some gradual, others immediate—reduce hard hat lifespans:
Some of the most extensive maintenance recommendations come from ANSI, which develops the standards OSHA uses to evaluate protective helmets. Their (exhaustive) guidelines are essential reading for those looking to keep helmets reliable, and we've written them about in our in-depth look at care, maintenance, and inspection.
But a simple version is available in an OSHA overview of PPE rules, which encourages users to inspect headgear for two types of defects:
The hard hat on the left is visibly dirtier than the one on the right. It may be less safe, too: An unclean helmet can conceal hard-to-spot but dangerous defects, like fine cracks or flaking.
Even if the hard hat expiration date is still far off, shell deformities and discoloration are cause for replacement. The same goes for any helmet involved in an accident or impact, including ones that appear undamaged.
These concerns can be uncovered and addressed with routine inspections. A basic hard hat inspection regimen includes:
And there's one other task to include in your inspection routine: a field test of your shell's elasticity and strength. To conduct it, grip the shell from opposite sides (front and back, side and side). Next, push inward about 1" per hand and, while keeping a steady grip, release the pressure. The shell should return to its original shape (which should be the same as the shape of a brand-new shell). If it cracks, creaks, or remains deformed, get rid of it.
Remember: The only "reliable" hard hat is one carefully inspected before each use. Taking a close look regularly can help you identify helmets that have reached the end of their lifespan early—and keep your head safe.
Construction is a dangerous industry. Injuries happen, even with skilled teams and a well-managed job site. But with regular inspections and a watchful eye on your hard hat's expiration date, you can remain confident that your PPE will minimize or prevent life-threatening risks.
Keep your head safe—and remember to maximize your hard hat lifespan by avoiding a few common pitfalls:
To learn more about hard hats and head injury prevention, check out Hard Head Veterans' other write-ups, including our explainers on: