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A critical decision

25 June 2015

Matthew Judson, technical director at JSP demonstrates how difficult it can be to select the correct head protection for a specific situation. In the scenario below, which helmet would you select?

In 20013/14 in the UK 2299 people suffered a head injury that required them to take more than seven days off work. Of these, 779 people sustained a major, life changing injury and, worst of all, there were 25 deaths from injury to the head. Matthew Judson, technical director at JSP, believes that if the right helmet had been worn in the right situation, almost certainly the numbers could have been reduced.

A few years ago, in response to the Government’s post-Löfstedt legislation tidy up, there was a degree of outcry over the decision to revoke the Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989. They disappeared in 2013 but this in no way reduced the need for head protection – the requirement to wear adequate and suitable head protection remains within amended Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations. However, while the PPE Regulations make it clear that head protection should be worn, they do not explain which kind of head protection, and where. This can cause confusion and thus increase the risk of injury where inappropriate head protection is selected.

There are several standards governing head protection that may be worn in the workplace, ranging from pedal cycle helmets to public order helmets and the more familiar industrial safety helmets. So, how do you know that you have the right type and level of protection? As with most activities, a risk assessment is the right way to determine what is really needed. Do you just need a fabric cap and hair net to keep poultry feathers out of your hair, or is a huge slab of rock about to fall in the quarry you are working in?

Take the following example: while working under a river crossing road bridge on a scaffold, do you need:

  • An EN1385 water-sports helmet, as you might fall in the water?
  • A PAS028 marine safety helmet?
  • An EN12492 climbing helmet, as you might swing against the bridge structure, or the scaffold?
  • An EN397 industrial safety helmet, as a part of the bridge might fall and strike your head?
  • An EN812 bump cap, as you might bump your head against the underside of the bridge?
  • An EN14052 higher-performance industrial safety helmet, as large parts of the bridge are being demolished?
  • A unique design of head protection that is CE-marked against a technical specification that has been developed just for your job?

This list of standards is in no particular order, but any or all of them might be suitable. Without carrying out a particular risk assessment, however, it is difficult say. Ideally, of course, the work area would be set up in such a way that none of the above would be required, but, in reality, this is never the case.

In the best scenario, just a bump cap will be needed, as there is a possibility that the worker, while walking around, could bump his or her head against the underside of the bridge, or on any scaffolding used to support the work platform. A real possibility is that you are working from a watercraft under a low bridge and the highest likelihood is falling into the water. A typical industrial safety helmet sits away from the head to allow ventilation but as you fall in the water, this allows for the helmet to be pulled from the head, leaving the worker with no protection as his head hits an obstruction under the water.

An EN1385 helmet tends to have large holes, which will allow the water to flow out of the helmet, and will give some protection from striking the head on a rock. It will not offer a great deal of protection from falling objects – the aforementioned large holes may also mean that cables and tools can get through, injuring the head inside the helmet.

A PAS028 helmet fits close to the head to reduce the effect of water tugging on the helmet if the wearer falls in, but also offers some protection from parts of rigging and shipboard equipment striking the wearer (this is likely to be a higher-energy impact than someone’s head moving through water and striking something).

An EN12492 climbing helmet may have been developed as a lightweight helmet that can be easily carried until the climber is in an area of risk. The chinstrap on this is design to keep the helmet on the wearer’s head in the event of a rock slide/avalanche. The standard also requires ventilation holes of a size that presents similar issues to those of the water-sports helmet.

An EN397 industrial safety helmet is the default head protection used in most workplaces. Within that classification, however, there are many different types of helmet available; some manufacturers offer lightweight versions for lower-risk applications and some use more traditional design techniques that make a robust helmet suitable for various applications. However, just because this type of helmet is familiar does not make it the right choice.

In an ideal world, an EN812 bump cap would tick all the boxes. It protects the wearer from themselves, if they walk into a structure because they are not looking where they are going – a familiar sight on the high street, where people are concentrating on their mobile phones!

An EN14052 higher-performance industrial safety helmet is going to be the right choice in a situation where you are trying to knock stuff down and will have difficulty doing it remotely. However, these types of helmets tend to be larger, heavier and retain more heat in use, meaning wearers tend to take the helmet off when they should be wearing it, which increases their risk.

The best solution is bespoke head protection, which has been designed to protect the wearer from the specific hazards of doing a specific job. Of course, this sort of helmet will necessarily be produced in smaller quantities and so will tend to be more expensive. However, using the examples of PEROSH’s Well-being Tree, the other side of that is that workers wearing a helmet that has been custom-designed for their job are more inclined to wear it and therefore are more likely to be protected, to work better, and to be more engaged with their own health and safety.

Whatever head protection is provided, the wearer will need to be properly trained not just on how to wear the helmet but also on when and how to look after it. However good the risk assessment and selection process are they are worth little if the equipment is not looked after subsequently – for example, leaving a helmet in the front window of your van in hot weather can lead to it being deformed by the heat.

Training is key to ensuring that the wearer understands how to look after and check their head protection. One way to get individuals to take ownership of head protection is to issue it personally and have the wearer’s name on it. Really, this should only be done according to a manufacturer’s approved process, as marking with any old pen or label may mean solvents within them eat into the plastic shell of the helmet, thus affecting its performance and integrity.

It really is very simple – head protection will be effective if the correct helmet for the purpose is selected and the user is trained on how to wear and care for it. Reputable and responsible manufacturers will happily provide this training and will also be members of the BSIF’s Registered Safety Supplier Scheme.  There is no excuse for not providing the right head protection for the right task.