With construction workers facing the highest occupational risk of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), hard hats are a critical piece of equipment on the job site. But what safety standards matter most—and how do you know that the construction helmet you choose offers appropriate protection?
Construction sites can be notoriously dangerous places, even when proper safety protocols are followed. From falls off a roof to collisions with exposed beams to getting struck by moving vehicles, the risk of head injury looms large.
During a seven-year study, the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found 2.6 fatal TBIs per 100,000 construction workers every year —more than triple the average rate across all other industries. That represents 1 in 4 construction-related deaths and nearly 1 in 4 of all occupational TBI fatalities.
Even mild TBIs can have life-long effects, impacting cognitive function, movement coordination, social behavior, and overall quality of life.
The right industrial helmets—commonly known as hard hats—can protect construction crews from falling debris, low-hanging objects, contact with electrical hazards, splashes, high heat, exposure to ultraviolet light, and more. A National Institutes of Health (NIH) report asserts that hard hats complying with American National Standards Institute (ANSI) guidance can reduce head acceleration by as much as 95% after impacts from large falling objects.
In this blog, we explain:
Most important, we’ll help you determine the right level of hard hat protection for your needs.
For a relatively small piece of personal protective equipment (PPE), construction hard hats have an immense responsibility for protecting workers:
Before OSHA was formed in 1970, construction companies maintained their own requirements for protective gear. Now, Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations (29 CFR aka CFR Title 29) mandates specific rules for head protection that aim to create a work environment safe from known dangers or hazards:
As with many of its standards, OSHA mandates that construction companies follow the guidelines set forth by the American National Standards Institute to achieve compliance with head protection regulations. In other words, OSHA establishes the rules construction companies must follow, and ANSI Z89.1 details specific steps needed to comply.
The 2014 version of the American National Standard for Industrial Head Protection (ANSI Z89.1-2014) details the most updated performance and testing requirements for construction helmets, considering improvements in technology, testing methods, materials, worker needs, and the use and application of products. The ANSI standard also establishes types and classifications for protective classes based on potential hazards, helping employers and users select hard hats that meet specific workplace needs.
The latest ANSI edition revised 2009 regulations. It was prepared by members of the Industrial Safety Equipment Association’s (ISEA's) Head Protection Group and approved by a consensus review panel of users, government agencies, and safety experts.
Key updates to the latest edition include:
OSHA regulations also permit workers to use hard hats that adhere to 2009, 2003, or 1997 ANSI editions, however. They even allow construction helmets that don’t follow ANSI requirements as long as employers can demonstrate equal or better protection.
But keep this in mind: if a job exposes workers to hazards only addressed by the 2014 edition, older products may not comply. For instance, there are new, optional rules for preconditioning hard hats for testing at higher temperatures. These additions make sure the equipment performs in more extreme environments.
It’s also important to note that neither OSHA nor ANSI approves bump caps, which are designed to help wearers avoid bruises, scrapes, and abrasions caused by minor impacts with stationary objects. Bump caps are unsuitable for protection against falling or moving items. They are never intended for use when job site hazards demand ANSI Z89.1 hard hats.
OSHA regulations require construction workers to wear hard hats when they are exposed to the following potential hazards:
OSHA places responsibility squarely on employers’ shoulders for not only providing ANSI-compliant head protection but for ensuring employees wear it. Penalties for non-compliance can be severe: fines of up to $13,653 per violation for “serious” infractions, meaning employers knew about an existing risk that could impact health or safety but did little to correct it.
Failing to remedy the situation after receiving a citation can trigger daily fines. And “willful” violations—issued for intentionally ignoring OSHA standards—can lead to criminal penalties that include possible jail time if an employee is killed.
Even so, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that only 16% of construction workers who suffered a head injury wore hard hats—despite regulations requiring protection for more than twice that number.
Other countries follow their own hard hat standards, like Canada’s CSA Z94.1-15 and Europe’s EN 397:2012 + A1:2012 and EN 50365:2002. The various challenges standards committees face in each geographic region make it unlikely that a global standard will be created any time soon.
For instance, the Canadian standard is similar to ANSI Z89.1, with the most apparent differences stemming from testing requirements. But approval from one organization doesn’t guarantee compliance with the other.
Always make sure your hard hat is labeled and certified for the right location!
Falls from a significant height represent a leading cause of traumatic brain injuries in construction workers.
If a hard hat meets ANSI Z89.1, it is OSHA-compliant. But what exactly does this standard entail?
ANSI Z89.1-2014 (Chapter 4: Types and Classes) establishes two types of protective safety helmets. In this case, “type” doesn’t mean “style,” such as cap or full-brim models. It is a very specific designation that refers to impact and penetration protection.
To further improve safety, ANSI also classifies hard hats by their ability to withstand electrical shock. In the past, ANSI’s electrical class designations were A, B, and C, with B offering the greatest protection.
The current labeling system is more intuitive for choosing the right model:
ANSI-approved Class E hard hats can protect wearers from high-voltage shocks.
ANSI further sets requirements that must be met to achieve compliance with optional hard hat features, including:
Determining if a construction helmet is ANSI-approved is easy—just sneak a peek inside the shell. In Chapter 6: Instructions and Marking, ANSI requires permanent labels or markings inside certified models. This information must include the following safety facts in 0.06” (1.5 mm) letters:
If the certification markings are missing or no longer legible, replacing the hard hat as soon as possible is recommended.
ANSI also requires every hard hat to come with manufacturer’s instructions that explain proper use, the appropriate method of size adjustment and fitting, and guidelines for care and useful life. The 2014 edition clarifies that ANSI does not require manufacturers to define useful life in years; instead, it wants users to understand that conditions like extended sunlight exposure or chemicals could impact protection over time.
When this mark appears on the inside of your hard hat, it meets ANSI requirements for safe backward or forward wear.
ANSI testing requirements ensure hard hats provide robust head protection to construction workers
Before ANSI certifies that any type or class of hard hat offers adequate head protection, it must pass these rigorous performance tests detailed in Chapter 10: Test Methods:
Additional tests are required for Type II hard hats. ANSI also details tests for optional features like high-visibility and reverse-wear models that manufacturers can choose to perform.
Construction helmet manufacturers are responsible for ensuring their products are tested to ANSI standards. They typically send samples to independent laboratories that use specialized machines to evaluate performance according to ANSI specifications.
ANSI requires a minimum of 30 samples for the following schedule of performance tests, with anywhere from one to 24 hard hats utilized per test. If optional reverse-donning tests are also performed, a minimum of 36 samples must be used.
ANSI provides this rigorous testing schedule for certifying hard hats as Type I or Type II. It also includes testing for optional features. Table source: ANSI Z89.1-2014
Here’s an overview of what hard hat testing entails—be sure to refer to ANSI Z89.1-2014 for complete details:
Essentially, this test is performed by applying a Bunsen burner flame to a chosen test point on a hard hat for about five seconds. Five seconds after the flame is removed, testers inspect the sample.
The hard hat fails the flammability test if it shows any sign of visible flame five seconds after the Bunsen burner is removed.
Testing is conducted on hard hats preconditioned to the following environments:
Test samples are removed from the conditioning environment one at a time and placed on a headform (a specialized dummy head). An impactor (such as an anvil or steel ball) with a mass of about 8 lbs. (3.6 kg) and a spherical striking face with a radius of about 1.9” (48 mm) is dropped from a height that yields an impact velocity of about 18 ft/s (5.50 m/s).
Individual maximum force readings and impact velocities for all test samples are recorded. The average for each group of preconditioned hard hats is also calculated and recorded.
Construction helmets must not transmit a force to the headform that exceeds 4,450 N (1,000 lbf). The average maximum transmitted force for each preconditioning group must not exceed 3,780 N (850 lbf).
This video from Cadex—a company specializing in helmet-testing technology—demonstrates impact and penetration tests:
Testing is conducted on headgear preconditioned to the following environments:
Test samples are removed from the conditioning environment one at a time and placed on the test headform. The test is conducted by dropping a pointed steel penetrator onto a hard hat from a height that yields an impact velocity of about 23 ft/s (7 m/s).
The penetrator should have a mass of about 2.32 lbs. (1 kg) and a spherical tip radius of 0.010” (0.25 mm).
Hard hats fail the test if the penetrator touches the top of the test headform.
Class C hard hats are not tested for electrical insulation. During testing of Class G and E hard hats, permanently attached helmet accessories like lamp brackets and chin straps remain on the sample.
This test is conducted by applying voltage to two test samples partially submerged in water for each helmet type and class.
For Class G hard hats, voltage is increased to 2,200 volts and held for one minute. Electrical current leakage is recorded.
For Class E hard hats, voltage is increased to 20,000 volts and held for not less than three minutes. Current leakage is also recorded. The test sample is then tested for burn-through by increasing the voltage to 30,000 at the rate of 1,000 volts per second — followed by immediately reducing the voltage to zero. Any evidence of burn-through is recorded.
Class G hard hats must be able to withstand 2,200 volts for one minute, with leakage not exceeding 3 milliamperes.
Class E hard hats must be able to withstand 20,000 volts for three minutes, with leakage not exceeding 9 milliamperes. At 30,000 volts, there should be no evidence of burn-through.
This Cadex video demonstrates an electrical insulation test on a construction helmet:
This test measures a hard hat’s ability to absorb energy from a lateral impact. Testing is conducted on helmets preconditioned to the following environments:
Test samples are removed from the conditioning environment one at a time and placed onto the test headform. The helmeted headform is dropped onto an anvil from a height that yields an impact velocity of about 11.5 f/s (3.5 m/s). The maximum g value (a coefficient of the acceleration of gravity) for each test and the associated impact velocity are recorded.
Maximum acceleration for Type 2 hard hats must not exceed 150g.
This test measures a hard hat’s ability to resist penetration at the front, side, and rear, as well as above a dynamic test line. Testing is conducted on hard hats preconditioned to the following environments:
Test samples are removed from the conditioning environment one at a time and placed onto the test headform. The same pointed steel penetrator from the apex penetration test is dropped from a height that yields an impact velocity of about 16.4 f/s (5 m/s).
For each construction helmet, the impactor is dropped at two different sites, reconditioning each sample for at least 15 minutes between impacts.
If the penetrator touches the headform, the helmet fails the test.
This test measures a chin strap's ability to keep a hard hat on a wearer’s head. Chin straps must be made of a material at least 0.5” (12.7 mm) in width.
Testing is conducted on hard hats preconditioned to the following environments:
Essentially, the test is conducted by attaching a roughly 22.2 lb. (10 kg) object to a helmet’s chin strap and dropping it from a height of about 4” (10 cm). Residual elongation—a measure of how much a plastic stretches (ductility)—must be recorded between 15 and 30 seconds after impact.
Chin straps must remain attached to the helmet. Residual elongation should not exceed 1” (25mm).
There are many reasons construction workers wear their hard hats with the bill backward, from a preference for the look to a better fit with masks to better visibility.
But changing a construction helmet’s orientation can also change its impact area and fit, significantly decreasing its protection. The 2009 edition of ANSI Z89.1 addressed reverse donning for the first time, establishing optional tests that helmets must pass before they are deemed safe for reverse wear:
Wearing a hard hat backward that is not ANSI-certified for reverse wear is not a safe practice. Image source: State of California
Low visibility ranks as a serious risk on road construction projects, with workers standing mere feet away from high-speed traffic or colleagues operating heavy equipment. Nearly 850 work-zone fatalities were reported in the U.S. in 2019—up 85 from the previous year.
Even employers with the best intentions may not be doing enough to protect their crews; for instance, safety vests with reflectivity on the back and torso do little to draw attention to workers viewed from the side.
Following ANSI’s non-mandatory requirements for high-visibility hard hats can go a long way toward keeping workers safe in poor sight conditions. To earn the “HV” marking, construction helmets must demonstrate the appropriate levels of chromaticity and luminance factor in Table 1 below based on color:
Table source: ANSI Z89.1-2014
Hard hats are tested for impact, penetration, and chin strap retention under normal temperature conditions and, optionally, at higher and lower temperatures.
Headgear that earns higher temperature “HT” markings is preconditioned in a forced air circulating oven maintained at about 60°C (140°F) for at least four hours before each test. This equipment must also meet all other testing and marking requirements relevant to a hard hat’s class and type.
Helmets that earn lower temperature “LT” markings are preconditioned in a freezer maintained at about –30°C (-22°F) for at least four hours before testing. They must also meet all testing and marking requirements relevant to type and class.
Worker safety should be the highest priority on any job site. And ANSI Z89.1 hard hats deliver a sufficient level of head protection in most conditions.
Of course, other factors also play an essential role in safeguarding workers. As ANSI Z89.1-2014 cautions, “The use of protective helmets should never be viewed as a substitute for good safety practices and engineering controls.”
Construction helmets should fit securely on the head, with the suspension adjusted to a snug fit. Workers should inspect their hard hat shell and suspension frequently and replace it immediately if it sustains a significant impact—even if there are no signs of visible damage.
Proper care and storage are also critical to safety; for instance, painting or using chemical solvents on a hard hat or storing it in direct sunlight can eventually compromise the shell.
OSHA and ANSI standards are a backbone of safety in the construction industry. Using our guide will help you understand the regulations you need to follow—and choose the hard hat that helps prevent serious injuries.
Want to learn more about helmet safety? Check out more posts on the Hard Head Veterans blog, where we explore head injury survival stories, the future of smart helmets, and the evolving science of brain injury