The best hard hat
A hard hat is an absolute necessity in all kinds of workplaces, from deep below the ground to hundreds of feet above it. It can be a lifesaver, whether you're working on a building site or in the backyard. While they all look quite similar, there's considerable variation in shell structure, fit, and comfort. The results of our research will help you with your choice. Our top pick from Pyramex is certainly worth considering. It meets all applicable safety standards, and it's very affordable.
Considerations when choosing hard hats
Hard hats and the law
All hard hats sold in the U.S. must meet American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z89.1-2003 or later (2009 / 2014). Type 1 helmets (the most popular) are designed to protect the top of your head. Type 2 helmets protect the top and sides.
Additionally there are electrical standards. Class C provides no protection. Class G will take 2,200 volts, for 1 minute, at 3 milliamps current leakage. Class E will take 20,000 volts, for 3 minutes, with 9 milliamp leakage. This type will also take 30,000 volts without burning through.
Bear in mind any electrical protection is only if contacted through the hat -- so almost invariably from above. They don't protect the rest of your body.
Hard hat materials
There are five materials in general use for hard hats:
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) is a kind of plastic. Easy to make (so it's cheap) and reasonably tough. They usually meet impact standards but not electrical. Very light, but the least durable material.
ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is a thermoplastic polymer. Again, reasonably easy to make, so hard hats remain affordable. Probably the most common hard hat material. Offers good impact and electrical protection, and still reasonably light.
Fiberglass is glass strands bonded into laminates with resin. They are very tough, but don't offer electrical protection. They're a little heavier than ABS and more expensive because of the layering process.
Phenolic resin is a synthetic polymer. They can be used as a solid (in pool balls, for example) or laminated for hard hats (sometimes with fiberglass). They are extremely hard, far exceeding ANSI standards, but most only offer Type G electrical protection. Weight is similar to fiberglass, though they cost more.
Carbon fiber is an immensely strong material -- but on its own is brittle, so it's usually combined with epoxy resins, and either polyester, fiberglass or phenolic resin. The result is the toughest hard hat available, and many meet the highest electrical standard. They weigh about the same as ABS, but manufacturing is labor intensive so they're very expensive.
Suspension and fit
Suspension is provided inside the hard hat so it doesn't sit directly on your head. Impact is absorbed partly by the material of the hat, and partly by the suspension. Standard suspension is four point. Better six-point options are available. On some models, suspension can make the hard hat ride quite high on the head. It's not a negative in terms of safety, but looks odd and makes some people uncomfortable. Others rest as a hat would normally. The comments of existing owners are a useful way to check this.
Fit is adjusted by a simple ratchet mechanism at the back. Comfort is sometimes enhanced by padding on this section, a liner within the hat, and a brow pad.
Hard hat prices
You can buy a high-density polyethylene hard hat that meets ANSI impact standards for around $10 -- so everyone can afford proper head protection. ABS hard hats are still relatively cheap, with most between $15 and $25. You'll pay more for fiberglass, in the region of $35 to $50. Phenolic resin and carbon fiber are the most expensive. You're unlikely to find one less than $75, and they can be more than $130.
Q. Do hard hats wear out and need replacement?
A. It's perhaps not "wear" as such, but rather environmental factors. The UV in sunlight eventually degrades most materials. There may be other airborne contaminants in the workplace. Experts recommend changing them every two to five years. Of course, you should do so immediately if there's any sign of damage.
Q. Do I have to wear a hard hat by law?
A. It depends on where you work. Certainly in mines, construction sites, and many industrial areas. In other situations it may not be a necessity, but it's always a good idea. The U.S. Bureau of Labor estimates more than 1,000 people per year die from accidents that a hard hat might prevent. Twenty bucks to save your life -- why wouldn't you?
Hard hats we recommend
Best of the best: Pyramex Safety Full-Brim Hard Hat
Our take: High quality ABS shell meets all impact and electrical standards.
What we like: Strong and light with full-brim protection. Four-point harness gives good comfort adjustment (six-point available as an option). Sits nice and low. Very affordable.
What we dislike: Graphite effect is only paint, and wears off.
Best bang for your buck: ERB Omega II Cap-Style Hard Hat
Our take: Remarkably low price, yet meets the same safety standards as premium hard hats.
What we like: High density polyethylene shell is very light. Good six-point suspension. Padded ratchet for comfort. Cheap. Huge range of colors.
What we dislike: Many think it sits too high.
Choice 3: MSA Skullgard Hard Hat
Our take: One of the very hardest of hard hats. Frequently tops independent ratings.
What we like: Phenolic resin construction has great strength. Not only meets impact and electrical safety standards, but is tested to 350°F for radiant heat protection. Very comfortable suspension.
What we dislike: Very expensive. Color not always as pictured.
Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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