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How Falling Objects Led to the Use of Hard Hats on Construction Sites

Derek Tokarz Certified in Safety Management Group's Training in Fall Protection

Categories: Work Safety

As that old saying goes, necessity is the mother of the invention. And the invention of the hard hat fits that description perfectly. While millions of people who work in construction and industrial settings now wear hard hats as standard safety equipment, it wasn’t until the 1930s that it actually became commonplace.

That was during the time that construction workers were building the Hoover Dam. It was dangerous work, with nearly 100 of the 21,000 men on the site losing their lives to work-related accidents, according to History.com. Hundreds more suffered injuries. Since it was during the time of the Depression, the men were willing to take those risks to earn their 25 cents to $1.25 hourly wages.

One of the most common hazards on the site was the incident of “falling objects” — often caused by the demolition of the canyon walls to build the massive dam. Some of the men got creative in coming up with ways to protect themselves on the construction site. One method was covering their cloth hats with tar, which eventually hardened to transform the soft hats into “hard hats.”

The tarred hats were noticed by the construction company’s management, who called for a version to be commercially produced to protect their employees from falling debris.

The first? Not so fast

While the Hoover Dam construction marked the first time that the hard hat was required for construction workers, there were different variations of a hard hats being produced a couple of decades before that. Also, there were previous incidences of people doing the tarring method to create their own hard hats.

The E.D. Bullard Company, widely recognized as the manufacturer of the first commercially produced hard hats, created stiff hats made of leather which soon gave way to what was advertised as the “Hard-Boiled Hat,” a version made of steamed canvas and glue. According to historical accounts, it was inspired by a steel helmet E.W. Bullard, the son of the owner, brought home after World War I.

Ongoing evolution of the hard hat

When Bullard received a commission by the U.S. Navy to mass produce hard hats for shipyard workers, he designed a hard hat that featured inner suspension. That design laid the foundation for today’s hard hats as well as their increasing use as standard safety equipment.

The evolution of the hard hat continued with Bullard leading the way with upgrades, including the first aluminum hard hat in 1938, which proved to be a winner because of its durability and lighter weight; a heat-resistant fiberglass hard hat in the 1940s; and a thermoplastic hard hat created by a mold in 1950.

With safety on the work site becoming an increasing concern, the hard hat went yet another major revision in the 1980s with a non-slip ratchet suspension inserted on the inside that allowed users to adjust the fit.

Today’s hard hat

Although the hard hat come in a wide variety of colors, including red, orange, white, black and green, yellow is a common color because of its high visibility. Newer versions are made of polyethylene plastic — a material that is lightweight, durable and non-conductive to electricity.

Nearly 90 years after its introduction as standard equipment in the construction of the Hoover Dam, the hard hat has become ubiquitous with safety. Based on standards by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), head protection shall be provided to employees and used “whenever it is necessary by reason of hazard of processes or environment which could cause injury.”

And they’re not only used in construction and industrial settings. Baseball players, for example, have their own version of a hard hat.

More than likely, the hard hat will continue to undergo various evolutions as technology advances to improve its safety features.