Hard Hat Safety: Care, Maintenance, and Inspection Essentials

Smart tips for maximizing a hard hat’s protection and useful life

A hard hat can be all that stands between a construction worker and serious head injury or death. But like all personal protective equipment (PPE), proper inspection, care, and maintenance are vital to maximizing safety when it's needed most.

Even the best-made hard hats will eventually wear out and incur damage from sun exposure, chemicals, or impacts that reduce their protective properties. In this blog, we explain the best and realistic practices for hard hat inspections that make sure your headgear is up to the job.

We’ll also help you extend the useful life of your equipment by going over the essential dos and don’ts of hard hat care and maintenance.

Hard hat safety starts with getting to know your equipment

In Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations (29 CFR aka CFR Title 29), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) establishes head protection regulations designed to create a safer work environment. To achieve compliance, OSHA mandates that the construction industry follow specific guidelines set forth by the American National Standards Institute in its helmet safety standard, ANSI Z89.1.

To learn more about the head protection rules the construction industry must follow—and how to choose the best hard hat for your workplace—read our blog, “The ANSI Z89.1 Standard for Hard Hats & Construction Helmets: A Guide.”

Hard hats consist of three parts that require periodic inspection and maintenance:

  • Shell. This rigid outer portion protects the head from penetration and impact injuries, as well as splashes and ultraviolet rays. It is commonly constructed of a thermoplastic material like polycarbonate and comes in two styles: full-brim or cap (front-brim).

Full-brim and front-brim hard hats

Construction workers can choose hard hats in full-brim (left) or cap (right) styles. Image sources: US Department of Agriculture Forest Service

  • Suspension system. Designed to help absorb the impact of a blow to the head, this “head harness” typically fastens to the inside of the shell at four or six points, depending upon the manufacturer. Newer hard hats often feature a ratchet-type suspension that allows the wearer to adjust the headband to fit their head.

Hard hat suspension system

Make sure your suspension system and shell are compatible to ensure hard hat safety. Image source: US Department of Agriculture Forest Service

  • Chinstrap, when applicable. Straps keep hard hats in place during high-wind situations or impacts, when working on steep slopes or bent-over positions, or in other conditions that could cause them to slide off. Chinstraps can be attached to the suspension or the shell.

Choosing equipment that fits properly is key to hard hat safety. Essentially, that means your hard hat should be tight enough to stay on your head without slipping, binding, or irritating your skin. The suspension system should also allow adequate space between your head and the hard hat’s shell for proper ventilation and distribution of impacts. Suspension and helmet sizes must match.

In Appendix A2, ANSI Z89.1-2014 instructs workers to follow each manufacturer’s instructions for proper fitting procedures. ANSI Z89.1 also delivers this hard hat safety reminder:

A1. Instructions and Warnings. All instructions, warnings, precautions and limitations given by the manufacturer should always be transmitted to the wearer and care should be taken to see that such precautions and limitations are strictly observed. Helmets whose markings (as defined in Section 6.2 of this standard) are missing or obliterated should not be used.

Remember this important safety tip as well: While suspension systems can be purchased separately, mixing suspensions and shells from different manufacturers could compromise hard hat safety.

Manufacturers test shells and suspensions as a unit to meet ANSI standards. Using a suspension that is not intended for use with a particular shell or is made by a different manufacturer voids safety certifications and could put wearers at greater risk.

Old hard hat

Hard hats with worn, damaged, or defective parts should be removed from service immediately.

Hard hat inspection checklist: 4 simple steps for safety

ANSI Z89.1-2014 (A5) instructs workers to inspect all components and accessories before every use for signs of wear or damage. Some manufacturers even recommend multiple inspections throughout the day to maximize hard hat safety since damage can occur at any time.

While you should always follow your manufacturer’s specific guidelines, this hard hat inspection checklist can help ensure the structural integrity of your head protection:

Before you put your hard hat on each day:

Step 1: Visually inspect the shell for:

  • Physical damage caused by impacts, penetrations, abrasions, or rough treatment such as dents, nicks, cracks, tears, cuts, gouges, or holes.
  • Brittleness, dullness, flaking, discoloration, chalkiness, fading, or anything else that appears out of the norm, indicating degradation caused by excessive exposure to the sun, chemicals, or temperature extremes. A crazing pattern, or network of fine cracks, is another serious concern. Outdoor workers who rely on hard hats in high-visibility colors to be spotted by colleagues or oncoming motorists should especially monitor signs of fading.

Crazing pattern

If a crazing pattern appears on your hard hat’s shell, it must be replaced immediately. Image source: Wikipedia

Step 2: Visually inspect the suspension system for:

  • Frays, tears, cuts, or damaged stitching in suspension straps.
  • Cracks, tears, or loss of pliability throughout the system.
  • Make sure all keys in the suspension system fit tightly in their slots. Give a gentle tug to ensure the suspension is securely attached to the shell.

Step 3: Perform an overall visual check for:

  • Printed dates on shells and suspensions that have exceeded the maximum life specified by the manufacturer. Depending on the manufacturer, the recommended replacement period is calculated from the day of first use or the date of manufacture. It’s often the former, so inscribing the date you receive your helmet on a label ensures a useful hard hat isn’t replaced too soon.
  • Stretched out or worn headbands that no longer fit well or comfortably.
  • Missing pieces, wear, or damage to a chin strap or its plastic clips. Tug lightly on the chin strap clasps after clipping them together to make sure they don’t pull apart.

Step 4: Check for shell degradation with a simple field test:

  • Use both hands to squeeze your hard hat’s shell inward from the sides about 1”.
  • Release pressure but don’t drop the shell. 
  • Repeat the test on a new hard hat and compare its elasticity with your hard hat.
  • If your hard hat’s shell mimics the new shell and bounces back to its original shape quickly with no residual deformation, your equipment is in good condition.
  • If your hard hat does not exhibit similar elasticity to the new shell or cracks because of brittleness, it must be replaced immediately.

ANSI Z89.1 (A5) instructs that any hard hat with worn, damaged, or defective parts must be immediately removed from service. The offending shell and/or suspension must be immediately replaced.

ANSI (A6) cautions users to pay special care to inspections of hard hats exposed to unusual conditions like temperature extremes or chemical exposures.

ANSI (A6) further states that all components of any hard hat that sustain an impact should be immediately replaced. Even if the hardhat looks OK, it could have hairline cracks or weakened materials—substantially impacting its ability to keep you safe.

This Iowa Department of Transportation video demonstrates a proper hard hat inspection:

The dos and don’ts of hard hat care and maintenance

Hard hats designed to meet stringent ANSI and OSHA standards may be the most robust PPE that construction workers wear, but mistreatment can significantly reduce their effectiveness. ANSI Z89.1-2014 (A7) lists several precautions for users to observe, warning: “Because helmets can be damaged, they should not be abused.”

Following these dos and don’ts of proper hard hat care and maintenance compiled from ANSI and manufacturer guidelines can help you enjoy your head protection’s entire recommended life:

How to clean a hard hat

  • DO clean headgear regularly according to manufacturer instructions. Wondering how to clean a hard hat? It typically just involves washing components with mild soap and warm water, rinsing them thoroughly, and wiping or airing them dry.
  • DO inspect your hard hat for signs of wear or damage after every cleaning.
  • DON’T use abrasives, solvents, or harsh detergents on tar, sap, and other materials that aren’t removed by soap and water. Chemicals can weaken your hard hat’s shell and suspension. Instead, replacing components with dirt and stains that can’t be easily cleaned is recommended. 

Bucket of soapy water

Hard hats should be cleaned regularly—mild soap and warm water are all that’s needed to prolong their useful life.

Hard hat treatment

  • DO check with the manufacturer for compatibility information before adding accessories. Installing incorrect accessories (like sweat pads that don’t fit) can adversely affect safety.
  • DO keep detailed purchase records and damage reports for all your PPE, ensuring it's replaced at appropriate times.
  • DON’T drop, throw, sit on your hard hat, or otherwise use it as a support.
  • DON’T carry or wear anything inside your hard hat, apart from winter liners and sunshades specifically designed, approved, and properly used for that purpose. Donning a ball cap under your head protection or using it the space an extra pocket consumes the clearance between the head and shell that enables the suspension system to work correctly.
  • DON’T use your hard hat as a vehicular or sports helmet.

Mistreated hard hats

Mistreating hard hats can significantly reduce their protective capabilities.

Hard hat storage

  • DO store your hard hat in a clean, dry area protected from contamination, damage, dirt, debris, and extreme temperatures (such as those created by a furnace or oven).
  • DON’T store your helmet in direct sunlight, including the dashboard or rear window shelf of your vehicle. Sunlight and extreme heat lead to degradation.
  • DON’T leave your hard hat in a hot vehicle for long periods.
  • DON’T shove your headgear in a toolbox, risking sharp tools nicking the shell or suspension system.

Hard hat covered in stickers

While OSHA and ANSI rules don’t prohibit workers from personalizing their hard hats with stickers, too much decoration makes it harder to spot damage. Image source: eBay

Decorations and markings on hard hats

  • DO keep hard hat decorations to a minimum, so signs of damage are easy to spot.
  • DO use particular caution when marking or decorating Class G or E hard hats intended to provide voltage protection. Identification markers must be attached without making holes or using metal clips that can affect electrical conductivity. Always seek manufacturer authorization before using metallic-based markers like reflective tapes, metal foil labels, or metal foil hot stamps on these helmets.
  • DON’T alter, puncture, modify, or engrave your hard hat in any way. Drilling or cutting ventilation holes, for instance, will damage structural integrity—lessening impact resistance and nullifying Class G or E electrical insulation ratings.
  • DON’T use glues, paints, chemicals, solvent-based adhesives, gasoline, or similar substances on a hard hat that the manufacturer has not approved. Even incidental contact with certain chemicals can substantially degrade protection.

The final hard hat safety rules you should never forget

Even the best care, maintenance, and craftsmanship won’t allow a hard hat to last forever. Webbing in the suspension tends to succumb to wear and tear first, broken down by moving parts and exposure to dirt and sweat.

Hard hats stored in direct sunlight or routinely exposed to extreme temperatures or chemicals may require replacement more often. Frequent use impacts longevity as well.

While daily inspections remain the best way to determine when replacement of a hard hat shell, suspension system, or entire unit is necessary, manufacturers also offer guidelines for useful life.

But assuming events don’t warrant earlier replacement, construction workers can generally follow this rule: acquire new hard hat shells every two to five years and new suspension systems every 12 months.

Always check with your equipment manufacturer to address specific questions or concerns. But following these simple steps for hard hat care, maintenance, and inspection can optimize your headgear’s ability to keep you safe on the job.

Want to learn more about construction helmet safety? Check out more resources from Hard Head Veterans, where we: