More than 160 million people worldwide will tune in to watch one of the most popular U.S. sporting events this weekend. Along with the championship football competition, however, comes the players’ potential risk of concussion and traumatic brain injury, a risk also present in other contact sports and well-documented in medical research and most recently in the film Concussion. However, athletes aren’t the only ones at risk of serious brain injury. Construction workers belong in this high-risk group, too. Slips and falls are the number 1 cause of traumatic brain injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After one worker died from a fall on the hard, slick surfaces of the North Sea oil slopes seven years ago, an oil company approached Honeywell to develop a new hard hat that could further reduce the potentially damaging effects from head injuries. At its research labs in Smithfield, Rhode Island, Honeywell Industrial Safety uses an accelerometer to develop product enhancements that are incorporated in its new hard hats. Improvements range from stronger, flexible materials like amorphous co-polyester to an internal suspension system that moves to reduce the force of the impact.
“We took a different approach to what the industry has done in the past,” said Joseph Rodrigues, engineering manager overseeing the team of Honeywell’s hard hat designs for the North and Fibre Metal brands. “Our new structural design meets a higher standard of impact absorption than what the industry has seen in hard hats. Basically the helmets have more flex, so impact is attenuated through the shell and suspension.”
Rodrigues alluded to the company’s patented, eight-point internal suspension system, called SuperEight™, available with some of its Fibre-Metal hard hats. The system uses eight load bearing points that break down G-force impact into smaller increments by distributing the load to crumple zones, spreading the force exerted at impact over a wider area of the helmet.
“It’s the same principle of attenuation found in some of the newer helmet technologies being developed by football helmet manufacturers, from whom we have studied innovative developments closely,” said Rodriguez. “We took the best of what we saw there and optimized it with our own technology.”
Honeywell also was first to expand protective coverage of the hard hat to the lower back of the skull, increasing the range of head protection by 25% with its innovative North Force design.
As a member of the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA), Honeywell helps to develop future standards for head protective gear. The ISEA is working with Dr. Christopher Pan of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on a special project that creates models of what happens when people fall, how much the brain accelerates or decelerates during a fall, and how much head protection is needed during a fall. The expected outcome of this research will be the development of new specifications for the next generation of hard hats.
Honeywell’s Phil Johnson, who has been a member of ISEA for 10 years and served on the committee’s Head Protection group, said the insurance industry is a key driver of the research. “They’re asking us to help move the industry toward a model of hard hat design that goes beyond protecting the head from bumps and concussions, but can be effective during an incident that might result in brain trauma, such as a fall from a scaffold.”
Research is ongoing, but changes are appearing with greater frequency suggesting that decades-old standards of head protection are falling away, and a higher future standard is on the way, one that will benefit the construction industry as well as football, lacrosse, hockey and other ‘impact’ sports. Two recent examples: a five-year study by Virginia Tech on reducing concussion risk, the leading academic study on the subject, focused initially on athletic headgear, but now includes construction hard hats; and new football helmets using stronger, lightweight materials and the sliding internal layer appeared for the first time in several recent college football post-season bowl games. Popular Science explores where football manufacturers may be headed in an article, The Helmet that can save Football.
Of course, head injuries aren’t limited to work situations. Honeywell has introduced an innovative solution for home use and do-it-yourselfers: a bump cap. It is a high-quality baseball cap with a thermoplastic lining that can protect the head from bumps against ceilings, hanging obstructions, and sharp and pointed corners.