Our brain is the epicenter of our being, and yet industrial head protection is a concern unique to modern history. Prior to this time, safeguards for the head and brain were selected primarily by nature, as with the skull. And, while this fusing of bones does limit damage in the event of an incident, with a limited human height (average 5’6” for men and 5’2” for women) and the threatening possibility for anything above that height to fall onto our heads with the accelerating guidance of gravity and other forces, further effort has always been necessary to keep workers safe. This beckons the question: what was the first hardhat?
It should be noted that, while hardhats are, in the grand scheme of all things, a recent innovation, helmets have covered heads throughout history. One of the oldest helmets ever found appeared during the Bronze Age, around 17th Century BCE, in the citadel of Mycenae. This is known as a Boar’s Tusk Helmet, and it was created by attaching slivers of ivory to a leather cap, which was padded with felt. Since the time when this example was crafted, helmets generally have remained a warfare apparel.
A precursor to the industrial hard hat emerged just before 1900, around the turn of the century. Workers, particularly dock workers, used to smear their hats with tar and let them dry in the sun. This custom surely did not lead to the most durable hardhats, but, in a world without industrial head protection, any type of head covering was helpful for the dockworkers who sought protection from objects that would tumble down from the top of ships or plummet from a seagull’s grasp.
Additionally, it has been claimed that writer Franz Kafka created the first industrial hardhat for civilians while he worked at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. However, while this credit is thrown around frequently on the Internet, there actually is not any concrete evidence to confirm it.
Instead, the first hardhat safely can be attributed to E.W. Bullard. It should come as no surprise that, since warriors throughout the millennia that preceded this man’s lifetime had equipped helmets, Bullard based his hardhat model on the army helmet he wore during World War I.
Bullard’s wartime headgear was the Brodie helmet (but he, as most other Americans, called it the “doughboy helmet”), a combat helmet engineered by the British specifically for Western Front battlefield conditions. Its design was informed by the medieval infantryman’s “kettlehat” in England, and many of the Allies adopted it as the Great War waged on.
The Brodie was engineered to meet the life-or-death requirement of infantrymen helmets, something that its metal exterior and liner generally provided by reducing the blunt trauma to the head. In all, these helmets saved a multitude of lives on the battlefield, but they were subject to criticism for being “too shallow, too reflective, too sharp at the rim,” and having a lining that was “too slippery.”
However, the Brodie was especially useful for protecting from “falling shrapnel and secondary, low-velocity fragments.” Interestingly, this factor made the Brodie the perfect model for Bullard’s Hard Boiled Hat.
The Hard Boiled Hat, which Bullard patented in 1919 and named after the steam used in the manufacturing process, was manufactured out of steamed canvas, glue, a leather brim, and black paint. Bullard later expanded his design to include an internal suspension, which offered added protection.
With a viable hardhat on the market, industrial head protection rapidly became the norm. Some of its success can be attributed to FDR’s New Deal, as hardhats were required on-site during the construction of the Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge.
Throughout the next century, the hardhat underwent continuous changes in pursuit of continuously improving its performance, eventually taking shape as the common yellow hard hat, composed of polyethylene plastic for lightweight durability and easy molding while being nonconductive to electricity. Today’s hardhats are vastly successful in reducing the forces of impact and penetration and even the effects of electric shock. They have become a staple of workplace safety, being recommended in documents published by ANSI-accredited standards developing organizations and required by OSHA for specified conditions.
The reliable performance of hardhats, which assures user safety, is addressed by the American National Standard ANSI/ISEA Z89.1-2014 (R2019): American National Standard for Industrial Head Protection. This standard establishes minimum performance guidelines for the protective helmets used in industrial and occupational settings. It designates these helmets both by Type and Class.