From Tar to Sugarcane: the History of Hard Hats.

Caring about safety it’s something that comes naturally today, but only a few decades ago this concept was completely different or even not considered.


Not so many ago there was no regulation and injuries were very common: workers were exposed to dangers without wearing proper equipment and hard hats, elements which define the image of the construction worker as we see it today. In the past, in order to prevent injuries from falling objects, workers used to smear their hats with tar and then set them to dry in the sun.

The first safety helmet for civilians (because helmets were made for soldiers) seem to have been created by Franz Kafka in 1912, according to management professor Peter Drucker, but there is no documentation that can support this information.

What is certain, instead, is that the first civilian hard hats were made of leather and manufactured in California by E.D. Bullard Company, a mining equipment firm founded in 1898.The first evolution happened when the founder’s son came back from the World War I bringing a steel helmet which inspired him with the idea of improving industrial safety of the workers. He patented the “Hard-Boiled Hat” in 1919, which was made of steamed canvas, glue and black paint. In the same year, the U.S. Navy commissioned Bullard to create a protective hat for shipyard workers and he improved his hard hat with inner suspension. From that moment the use of hard hats began popular, but only in the 1931 it became officially required: on the Hoover Dam project hard hat use was mandated by Six Companies, Inc.

In 1933 by order of the project chief engineer Joseph Strauss, workers were required to wear hard hats while building the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. He wanted to create a safer workplace by installing safety nets and commissioning from Bullard hard hats for workers that did sandblasting. This hat covered the worker’s face, had a window for vision and air supply from a compressor for breathing.About the materials, at the beginning safety helmets were made of steel. In 1938 aluminium became a standard except for electrical jobs. Another popular material was the plastic Bakelite, to ensure a rigid protection and less weight on the worker’s head, while fiberglass came into use a few years later. Thermoplastics started to be used in the 1950s.

In 1952, MSA (Mine Safety Appliances) developed the Shockgard Helmet to protect electrical linemen from electrical shock and ten years later released the Topgard Helmet, the first made of polycarbonate.

1962 is the year of the V-Gard Helmet, one of the most widely used in the United States.

Today, most safety helmets are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or advanced engineering resins

In 1997 the American National Standards Institute allowed the development of a ventilated hard hat to keep the head cooler as well as face shields, sun visors, earmuffs, and perspiration-absorbing lining cloths. Hard hats functionality can also be improved with other attachments like radios, walkie-talkies, pagers, and cameras.

Green note: recently (2013) has been developed the MSA V-Gard GREEN Helmet, which is the first industrial safety product produced from 100% renewable resources, made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) derived from sugarcane ethanol. This helmet is also recyclable.

What about the latest innovations? Stay tuned for the next post, we will have a look at the smart helmets!

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