Next to warning signs and barricades, the sight of a crew wearing hard hats is probably the most visible indicator of a construction zone. The use and design of the modern hard hat have changed over the years, but one thing has remained the same — a dedication to safety on the work site. In this piece, we’re going to take a quick look at how the modern hard hat came into existence and how it’s use continues to save lives each and every day.

Makeshift Hard Hats of History

Aside from warriors protecting their heads from the injuries of battle, who would you say were the first creators of protective helmets to be worn in a work setting? It may be surprising to find out that first helmets worn in the construction industry were not due to a safety policy instituted by employers. In fact, in the earliest days of construction, there were very few safety regulations in place for those working in dangerous positions. Despite the fact that early commercial companies weren’t required to enforce many, if any safety regulations, some of the first hard hats were created by workers themselves. In order to prevent the injury from falling objects, many shipyard workers would coat the tops of their hats with tar, leaving them in the sun to dry and harden. This process created a hard shell on the top of the hat that provided a very modest level of protection from falling materials and dropped tools.

The First Commercially Developed Hard Hats

The lead into the Industrial Revolution meant an increase in mining operations with larger budgets and limited timeframes. This emphasis on larger, faster production also meant the potential for more workplace accidents to occur. In order to combat mining-related head injuries, a mining equipment company called the E.D. Bullard Company developed and sold protective leather hats around the turn of the 20th century. When the owner’s son, E. W. Bullard, returned from serving in the U.S. Army in World War I, he brought home the metal “doughboy” helmet he’d worn in battle. Around 1915, he starting developing a helmet based on his military helmet for miners. Because steam was used in the manufacturing process of the canvas, it was nicknamed and later branded as the “Hard Boiled” Hat in 1919. In additional to simply providing miners with an extra layer of protection from falling materials, the hat had a unique “suspension” device further disperse the energy of falling objects.

The First Mandated Hard Hat Zones

The 1930s were home to some of the most innovative construction projects the world had ever seen up until that point. Two of these projects that would capture the attention of the world were the building of the Hoover Dam and The Golden Gate Bridge. Because of the increasing scale of projects and the lack of established safety precaution for workers, fatalities were not unusual on work sites leading up to this point. In order to save worker lives and money, construction zones were beginning to require the wearing of hard hats in certain areas.  Though historians continue to debate who actually did so first, The Hoover Dam construction companies and the Golden Gate Bridge builders were the two construction projects with required hard hat use — aka, the first official hard hat zones.

Advancements in Hard Hat Design

During the early days of commercial hard hat use, most of the hard hats worn were made of aluminum. Aluminum was chosen due to its great strength-to-weight ratio and ability to withstand intense heat. While an ideal material for miner hardhats, there was increasing concern about using the highly-conductive aluminum hard hats on projects where electricity was also being used. In the late 1930s, a hard hat made of hardened plastic was developed for workers for use on projects where electrocution was a concern. By the 1940s, some companies began to manufacture fiberglass hardhats but were replaced by thermoplastic hard hats in by the 1950s due to their strength and low cost. Hard hat design has advanced in recent decades to be increased protection, comfort, water-repelling abilities, and shading from the sun. They are worn by a wide range of professionals — from construction professionals to shipping crews, demolition experts to some military personnel. They have saved countless lives and will continue to do so in the future. 

If you’d like to work with the elite hard-hat-wearing construction professionals, your friends at Cowen Construction are ready to help you tackle any construction project. Big or small, we do them all.