“Do nothing that is of no use.”  — Miyamoto Musashi

I have been in several facilities recently that used bump caps as head protection. I make it a practice to follow the safety rules of facilities where I am visiting, because I believe it important to set a good example and to show that I take safety seriously. But I wondered about using a bump cap as head protection. It was, I supposed, better than nothing.

What Is Head Protection?

OSHA has safety regulations for six industries. Five are very specific: 1915, Shipyard Employment; 1917, Marine Terminals; 1918, Longshoring, 1926, Construction; and 1928, Agriculture. If an employer doesn’t fall into one of these categories, then they are considered 1910, General Industry.  General Industry includes everything from loggers, one the most dangerous occupations in the U.S., to librarian, one of the safest.

Except for agriculture, which has no regulations in regard to head protection or any other form of personal protective equipment, every industry has its own regulations about PPE. When it comes to head protection, they all say the same thing.

General Industry – 1910.135(b)(2) states that “Head protection devices that the employer demonstrates are at least as effective as head protection devices that are constructed in accordance with [ANSI Z89.1] will be deemed to be in compliance with the requirements of this section.”

Shipyard Employment – 1915.155(b)(2) states the same thing.

Marine Terminals – 1917.93(b)(2) states the same thing.

Longshoring – 1918.103(b)(2) states the same thing.

Construction – 1926.100(b)(3) says the same thing, but in a slightly different way. “OSHA will deem any head protection device that the employer demonstrates is at least as effective as a head protection device constructed in accordance with [ANSI Z89.1] to be in compliance with the requirements of this section.”

Why the authors of the construction regulation insisted on using different verbiage is a mystery to me, but all five regulations say the same thing. Again, the regulations for agriculture are silent on the subject of head protection. But since they are silent on the subject, OSHA can always turn to the general duty clause.

Are Bump Caps At Least As Effective?

There are at least two other standards that specify the construction of head protection. One is the Canadian standard, CSA Z94.1, Standard on Security Helmets. Another is EN 397, European Safety Helmet Standard. An employer that provided their employees with hard hats that complied with CSA Z94.1 or EN 397 could be confident that they were providing head protective devices that were at least as effective as hard hats that complied with ANSI Z89.1 and passed OSHA scrutiny.

But what about bump caps? The bump cap I wore most recently had this warning:

This bump cap  does not provide protection against falling or thrown
objects and should not be used instead of an industrial helmet
as specified by ANSI Z89, CSA Z94.1, or EN 397.

When OSHA requires head protection, bump caps don’t satisfy OSHA requirements, and when OSHA doesn’t require head protection, bump caps aren’t necessary. In the words of logicians, Bump caps are neither necessary, nor sufficient.

When Does OSHA Require Head Protection

OSHA is not as consistent in its requirements for head protection as it is in defining what is head protection. All five regulations that require head protection require that employees be protected from injury due to falling objects. The general industry regulation, the shipyard employee regulation, and the construction regulation also require that employees have head protection against nearby electrical conductors which could contact the head and result in electrical shock or burns. For some reason, OSHA doesn’t require employees in Marine Terminals and in Longshoring to have head protection from electrical hazards.

The construction industry takes it the furthest, though:

Construction – 1926.100(a) states that “Employees working in areas where there is a possible danger of head injury from impact, or from falling or flying objects, or from electrical shock and burns, shall be protected by protective helmets.”

Construction workers must be protected from not only falling objects and electrical shock, but from impact and flying objects. While the other industry regulations don’t include these hazards, OSHA cites employers as though they do.

What Guidance Does OSHA Give?

Guidance comes from OSHA in the form of letters of interpretation. In a letter from 22-Aug-1977, they stated that “OSHA has obviously not attempted to prepare for the employer an industry-wide ‘yes-no’ type of chart for wearing hard hats.” They doubled down in their 23-Aug-1983 letter of interpretation. “OSHA has no exhaustive guidelines for determining whether head protection is required.”

But they have given guidance in specific cases.

On 20-May-1976, OSHA issued a letter of interpretation about head protection in warehousing operations. In part, it stated:

In considering the use of hard hats in a warehouse, it is recommended that the employees be provided with such head protection. Those employees engaged in driving fork lift trucks are reasonably protected from large bundles falling down from overhead by the rack of a fork lift truck, but they do not have any protection against small heavy objects which might fall. Also, any employee walking down the aisles, or the truck operator having stepped off his vehicle will provide an opportunity for falling objects to strike the employees. Therefore, in these instances, as in all cases where a hazard might exist, it is advisable to provide and to enforce the use of head protective devices. Head protective devices need not be worn where the employees are not exposed to overhead hazards, such as when they go to the office or to other areas where there is no opportunity to be struck by falling objects.

OSHA has since classified this 1976 letter as an “OSHA Archive Document”, but it still continues to write letters of interpretation.

OSHA’s 21-Jan-1980 letter of interpretation, addressed to both general industry and construction, informed us that “Although there is a minimal chance of head injury from falling object, employees are exposed to bumps, cuts, and scalp injuries while working in manholes. Bump caps would not be adequate.”

OSHA’s 02-Dec-1991 letter of interpretation informed us that “Although there may be no hazards from falling objects during scaffolding erection, possible danger of head injury still exists.”

The most important statement, however, comes from a 17-Nov-2004 letter of interpretation, where OSHA invokes the judicial system. “The court emphasized that by its express language, the standard applies whenever employees are exposed to a possible danger of head injury.”

Where Are Hard Hats Required?

Hard hats are not required where there is no potential for head injury from the work environments. OSHA specifically mentions office spaces, but this also includes break rooms, lobbies, and laboratory spaces where there is a drop ceiling.

If there is a potential for head injury, however, head protection is required. Specifically protection from falling objects is required, but, judging from OSHA’s history of citations, protection from impact or flying objects is also required, regardless of industry.

And that means hard hats in any area with multiple levels separated by grates, any place where there is low piping, any place where any kind of activity happens above eye level. In short, just about any industrial setting. If cited, you can argue that there is no danger from falling objects, but it probably won’t go well.

What About Bump Caps?

If you have determined that there is a need for bump caps, OSHA will agree with your assessment that head protection is required. They are predisposed to believe that head protection is required. If head protection is required, however, the only way to meet that requirement is with a hard hat constructed in accordance with ANSI Z89.1, or its equivalent.

There is no place where a bump cap is the right choice.


  • Mike Schmidt

    With a career in the CPI that began in 1977 with Union Carbide, Mike was profoundly impacted by the 1984 tragedy in Bhopal and has been working on process safety ever since.