By Chuck Tholen

With Inspirata Pointe beginning construction, I have taken some time to muse about what goes into building it. Picture in your mind an image of the American worker. It really doesn’t matter if you are thinking of a construction worker, factory worker or even an oil roughneck. The concept is basically the same – a strong person that works with their hands for a living.

In 1919, a patent was issued by the United States Patent Office to the E.D. Bullard Company for a piece of safety gear that would soon become part of that American worker iconic image. Known by some of its more colorful names such as Brain Bucket, Cranium Catcher, or Skid Lid; the hard hat was initially designed to protect the skull and soft tissue of the face from injury.

The concept and development of the hard hat comes from the Bullard company, which was founded in 1898 and sold carbide lamps and mining equipment to gold and copper miners in California. At the time, most miners wore a soft leather derby similar to a baseball cap while working under ground. This head gear did little if anything to protect the workers from falling rocks or debris. E.D. Bullard thought there should be better protection and hit upon an idea when his son E.W. returned home from World War I with a steel helmet he had used during fighting. After several prototypes, E.D. patented a “Hard-Boiled Hat”, made of steamed canvas, glue and black paint. The name was more than accurate as the manufacturing process literally “hard-boiled” the canvas into shape. E.D then added an internal suspension device designed to lift the hat from the head thereby providing a space between the helmet’s shell and the wearer’s head. Any object striking the shell would not directly transmit the impact to the skull of the wearer. This was the birth of the world’s first commercially-available, industrial head-protection device.

The concept of protective head wear quickly caught on, and the first official “Hard Hat Area” was established at the construction site of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1933.

The project’s chief engineer, Joseph Strauss, wanted the workplace to be as safe as possible and required all workers to wear hard hats while on the job site. This created a secondary problem for Strauss. The steel for the project was made in Bethlehem Pennsylvania and shipped to San Francisco. During transit the steel would oxidize and upon arrival it had to be sandblasted before it could be painted. Since Strauss required all workers to wear hard hats for protection, he asked Bullard to create a specialized hard hat for the sandblasters. E.D. quickly designed a simple sandblast respirator helmet. Basically it was a hard hat with a bag over it. There was a window to see through and fresh air could be pumped into it. When the bridge was completed 4 years later, the safety benefits of the hard hat had been established. A total of only 11 men perished during construction. Ten men were lost on February 17th 1937 when a section of scaffolding carrying 12 men fell through the safety nets suspended under the bridge. The low death toll made engineers rethink jobsite safety where the rule of thumb had been “one man lost for every 1 million spent” on a project. Workers on the Hoover Dam were also required to wear hard hats and in 1938, Bullard designed and manufactured the first aluminum hard hat which increased the durability over the “hard-boiled hat”.

As time marched on, the hard hat evolved with new materials. Fiberglass came into use in the 1940s. Thermoplastics replaced fiberglass in the 50s because it was easy to mold and shape with heat and cost less to manufacture. Today, most hard hats are made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or advanced engineering resins, such as Ultem. Bullard has continually improved on the original design. The internal suspension system has evolved with an emphasis on increasing wearing comfort and keeping the hat secure when a worker turns his head. A rolled edge around the brim of the hat acts like a rain gutter to channel rainwater to the front allowing it to drain off the bill, instead of letting it run down the wearer’s neck.

Bullard now offers the S62 model which is a vented hard hat. The vents are similar to the vents in batting helmets baseball players currently wear. They allow air to circulate inside the hard hat keeping the user cool and comfortable.

In addition to design changes, hard hat designers also have developed accessories. Yes, you can “bling” your hat with options such as face shields, sun visors, welding masks, hearing protectors, clips for lights, perspiration absorbing cloths which line the hats, insulation to protect from electrical shock, even hook ups for radios, walkie-talkies, pagers and cameras.

On a typical job site, the hard hat becomes a part of the worker’s individual personality. They are usually decorated with stickers commemorating job sites or union memberships. Nicknames are sometimes stenciled or painted on them to also help identify who is who. Even the color of the hat may have meaning. Red may mean a safety inspector; while blue might be a technical advisor. White may signify a supervisor, engineer or company man.

One thing any person who wears a hard hat every day will tell you – “A clean shiny hard hat usually signifies someone that doesn’t know their way around and more than likely will end up getting in the way!” For a seasoned construction worker, the only thing worse than seeing someone wearing a bright shiny new hard hat is seeing an “Organ Donor.” That is the term given to someone who is not wearing a hard hat in a hard-hat designated area!