The History of Head Protection and Standards

29 January 2020

Head protection and Standards have been around for years in many guises, but we seldom reflect on where they originated from and how they first came about.

Helmets were invented around 2500BC to protect the wearer during battle, these were individual examples but not mass produced. The first mass produced versions were worn by Assyrian soldiers around 900BC mainly made from bronze and protecting the wearer from sword blows and arrow strikes. Unlike respiratory we never really thought about protecting workers till the late 1800’s even between 1850 and 1900 most miners wore a canvas cap giving no protection from falling objects or striking their head against an object.

In 1882 The Patented Pulp Manufacturing Company produced the first ever mass-produced hard hat to protect workers. The British company who later became Centurion Safety Products manufactured a helmet from pulp which was mixed with lime and fed to formers. The formed hat was left to dry and then lacquered giving a smooth if slightly textured finish and a steel plate was riveted to the inside of the helmet to give further protection. These although pioneering were slightly uncomfortable due to the lack of a cradle inside the helmet.

The cradle was invented much later by an American in 1919 but by then companies had started to look at mandatory hard hat wearing on construction sites and shipyards. The 2 most famous of these were the Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge construction whilst six companies mandated helmet wearing at the Hoover Dam, every worker on the Golden Gate Bridge were instructed to wear a hard hat. Hard hat wearing became much more widespread with aluminium versions in the 1930’s to the first thermoplastic injection moulded helmet in 1952 but up until the early 1950’s no-one really knew if a helmet would protect them as none were safety tested against a standard.

When T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was fatally injured in a motorcycle accident in May 1935 his doctor, the young Australian neurosurgeon Sir Hugh Cairns realised that his life might have been saved if he had been wearing a helmet. Cairns went on to research and campaign for the use of motorcycle helmets in the UK. Cairns researched head trauma in 1940 and this was published in 1941 in the British Medical Journal (Head injuries in motorcyclists. The importance of the crash helmet).

After the second World War this journal was used by the Ministry of Transport who investigated further head injuries and their mechanisms. This all lead to the first motorcycle standard in 1952 which was followed 2 years later by the first hard hat standard (The Light Duty Safety Helmet Standard) in 1954 both were British Standards. This standard was updated once before the International Standards Organisation tried to unify safety helmet standards in 1977 with ISO3873.

The British Standard was updated again in the early 80’s before the EU was formed and a European Standard commonly known as EN 397 was produced in 1995. This standard was based on the 1977 ISO3873 with just a few tweaks to make it an EN but most of the ISO3873 remained intact. In 2000 EN 12492 was introduced as a Mountaineering Standard and this seems to have been adopted by those working at height although this standard was never produced for that reason most see it as an industrial standard when it is clearly a recreational standard. As we make technological advances in materials and design the correct industrial standard EN 397 needs to be updated to reflect the dangers and injuries our workers face which is happening as I blog. I am proud to be a massive part of that process where I can help change a standard to truly reflect the workers requirements.

Chris Tidy – Centurion Safety Products