February 20, 2019 by David Kennedy
Sturdy, life-saving and ubiquitous, there’s nothing in construction quite like it.
Even if there’s little else in common between a compact work site in downtown Montreal and an expansive paving job in rural Alberta, workers are guaranteed to share at least one important piece of attire. The sentiment rings true from parka-clad workers in the Siberian taiga to short-sleeved crews in balmy Suriname, a few degrees of latitude north of the equator.
The hard hat unifies the construction industry the world over, and in 2019, the humble piece of headgear celebrates 100 years.
Now, it’s a little disconcerting to know that pneumatic drills, tunnel boring machines and dynamite — all products of the 1800s — hit the market well before head protection. Still, five generations of workers, some of which inarguably owe their lives to the toughened chapeau, can be thankful we got there eventually.
To be fair, workers have donned various types of helmets and strapped an array of makeshift protectors to their heads since antiquity, but hard hats in their modern incarnation date to a Kentucky manufacturing firm in the early 20th century. The E.D. Bullard Co. — better known simply as Bullard today — was founded in 1898 and originally produced equipment such as carbide lamps to support the turn of the century mining boom.
20 years later, some wartime inspiration and a little ingenuity would transform the business, and job sites everywhere.
As the First World War came to an end and America’s doughboys returned home from Europe, E.W. Bullard, the son of founder E.D. Bullard, modeled a new piece of headgear on the helmet he’d worn fighting overseas. The product, which hit the market in 1919, was a mash up of steamed canvas, glue, paint and a leather brim. The “Hard Boiled hat” is recognized as the world’s first commercially available head protection device. It wouldn’t be the last, as workers, companies and regulators slowly embraced the concept of shielding workers’ noggins.
Just 10 years after their introduction, hard hats were mandatory for crews building two of the world’s most iconic pieces of infrastructure. In what’s believed to be an industry first, construction workers at the Hoover Dam were forced to don the head protectors. Shortly after, the first hard hat “zone” was set up at the sprawling Golden Gate Bridge work site. Other jobs across the U.S., Canada and the world soon followed suit.
As time went on, designers refined the early steam-heated canvas shell. Enlisting materials such as aluminum, fibreglass and thermoplastics, innovators eventually ushered in the familiar era of (often yellow) hard hats we know today.
Hard hats certainly didn’t perfect job site safety, but the now-standard piece of gear was a major step in the right direction. A century after hard hats first hit the market, more life-saving equipment is required on job sites than ever before and the situation should only continue to improve. For an in-depth look at one of today’s big safety challenges, check out Jillian Morgan’s story on the challenge of working at heights.