By Luke M. Snell
Originally a sign of fear, this equipment has become a symbol of an industry. The hard hat is an icon of the construction industry, but many may be unaware of its origins. While there are several theories, the inspiration probably came from helmets that were used in warfare to protect soldiers. The battlefield helmet has been used for more than 3000 years and still provides protection for modern soldiers.
In construction project photos from the 1920s and 1930s, few people can be seen wearing hard hats, as many workers considered them (and safety in general) to be an indication of personal weakness or cowardice. Images from this era show workers taking foolish risks like eating lunch or reclining on narrow steel beams, as if to show they were not afraid of the dangers of construction.
During this period, however, some employers saw the need to provide protective hats on jobsites. These included the U.S. Navy, which encouraged the wearing of hardhats in shipyards. While some have speculated that these hats were more useful for shielding workers from waste dropped by seagulls, they were intended to protect workers from falling objects during the loading and unloading of ships. These protective hats were first ordered by the U.S. Navy in 1917, from the E.D. Bullard Company, Sausalito, CA.
The order spawned the Bullard Hard Boiled® hat (patented in 1919)—a hat comprised of a steamed canvas crown, a leather brim, glue, and black paint. Shortly thereafter, workers in other industries introduced their own protective headgear. Telephone linemen in the 1920s, for example, stuffed papers in their hats to soften the blow from objects falling from coworkers above them.
In what is probably the first use of protective apparel that would be termed a hard hat, the Electrical Union used surplus World War I helmets to provide protection against falling rivets during construction of a post office in Boston, MA, in 1931.4 Because these rivets were hot, the electricians were protected from burns or singed hair as well as a blow from the falling objects.
One of the first projects on which hard hats were made available to all workers was the construction of the Hoover Dam, on the border of Nevada and Arizona, between 1931 and 1936. The initial protective hats were worn by high scalers— workers that were suspended from cables and used jackhammers to remove rocks from the cliffs. High scalers created their own head protection by taking a cloth hat, dipping it into tar and letting it harden in the sun. The homemade protective hats proved successful in protecting the workers from falling rocks. Even though some high scalers wearing the hats were hit so hard their jaws were broken, they did not suffer skull fractures.
Managers of the contractor consortium formed to build the Hoover Dam, called Six Companies, Inc., were so impressed with these homemade protective hats, they bought manufactured hard hats for their workers.1 Although not mandatory, the company strongly suggested that their workers wear the hard hats when working in exposed areas.
The first project that made the hard hat mandatory was the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA. The requirement was established by Chief Engineer Joseph B. Strauss, who wanted to improve safety on the construction site and protect workers from falling rivets. Strauss required the wearing of hard hats manufactured by Bullard.2
Over the years, the hard hat was improved as homemade and hard-boiled varieties were replaced by steel hats to provide more protection. For added comfort, the materials used to manufacture hard hats have progressed from aluminum (except for electrical workers), Bakelite, fiberglass, to thermoplastics.
A hard hat is required on most projects, and many sites use colors to identify workers performing specific jobs. Typically, a white hat is worn by managers and engineers, while other colors are used to identify the various trades. Some companies will provide a bright, distinctive hard hat to visitors (or to workers who forget theirs, to shame them into remembering to bring their safety equipment). Some female-owned companies now use the pink hard hat as a sense of pride, symbolizing that it is no longer a maledominated industry.
The hard hat has come a long way from being considered a symbol of being afraid of the dangers of construction. Now it is considered a comfortable and essential part of the construction uniform, and workers automatically don their hats as they enter the jobsite. The pioneers that helped develop the hard hats deserve thanks for helping to improve the safety of the construction industry.
Luke M. Snell, FACI, is a Professor Emeritus of Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, IL, and the Executive Director of the Missouri Chapter – ACI. He is Past Chair of ACI Committee 120, History of Concrete. Snell serves on numerous other ACI committees, including 214, Evaluation of Results of Tests Used to Determine the Strength of Concrete; S801, Student Activities; and S802, Teaching Methods and Educational Materials.