National Work Zone Awareness Week (NWZAW): The Hard Hats Worn in Road Construction Areas

Hard hats, which are also called safety hats, long ago became an essential part of the personal protective equipment for workers in road construction areas across the United States. This type of helmet is worn by those individuals to help cushion the head against blows from motor vehicle crashes, flying objects, and other causes of potentially dangerous impacts in work zones. While not able to prevent all head-related fatalities and injuries, hard hats have generally played an important role in guaranteeing greater on-the-job safety for road construction workers.

The origins of today’s hard hats date back to ancient times, something that was highlighted in an article appearing in a 1989 issue of the Technology for Alaskan Transportation newsletter. “The subject of head protection has a rather interesting history,” noted this article. “Safety hats as we known them have been around for some sixty years, but protective head gear is a lot older than that. Vikings made leather helmets and Roman soldiers used polished metal helmets for protection against blows of the enemy.”

As mechanization and other technological advances rapidly grew during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, many more people than before created helmets to safeguard their heads while doing work in high-risk settings. Dock workers, for example, increasingly wore homemade helmets to help protect themselves against objects falling off ships in port.

Another major stride towards the development of modern hard hats took place during the 1910s, when Edward Dickinson Bullard focused on making headwear that could better protect miners from falling debris. Bullard, who had established a business in 1898 that sold lamps and other equipment to mining companies in the western United States, ultimately came up with a helmet similar to the one worn by soldiers who served in the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War I. Bullard’s version of that helmet for miners was granted a U.S. patent in 1919, and it became the first commercial hard hat.

This adoption and use of the hard hat eventually spread well beyond mineshafts. One of the first major transportation projects in which this type of helmet was used was the construction of the now-iconic Golden Gate Bridge in California between 1933 and 1937. As the chief engineer in charge of the building of this bridge, Joseph Strauss was deeply concerned about safety of those working on the project and the higher-than-average possibility of serious head injuries. Strauss therefore had Bullard design a customized hard hat that could be worn by workers constructing the bridge.

A couple of months before the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, the pioneering status of that location as an officially designated hard-hat area was given an extra dose of publicity. This happened when actress Jane Wyatt (best known today as the mother in the TV series Father Knows Best) visited the construction site.

The San Francisco Examiner reported, “For her seasonal chapeau the actress donned a fetching number in steel, commonly known as a bridge builder’s ‘hard hat.’ The nearly complete Golden Gate bridge was her boulevard and an interested group of bridge workers her audience.” In the time since the completion of that bridge, hard hats have made their way even further into the mainstream as a regular part of road construction work zones and various other transportation projects.

By the 1940s, fiberglass hard hats became commonplace. During the next decade, thermoplastic emerged as the leading material for that kind of headwear. The first hard hat made from polycarbonate was publicly introduced in 1961. The majority of today’s hard hats are made from high-density polyethylene or advanced engineering resins. Starting in the 1970s, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor has issued regulations for the use of hard hats.

Along with its protective function, the hard hat has become a form of shorthand for the need to make road construction areas safer. During NWZAW in 2010, for example, the Hackensack-based Record emphasized how drivers seeing “hard hats in work zones along roads and highways” should travel at slower speeds and use extra caution.  

A 2002 article in the Scranton-based Times-Tribune, while mentioning the daily regimen for an employee of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), likewise underscored the prominence of hard hats. “Scott Gillette doesn’t wear a shirt and tie or carry a briefcase to his office,” reported the Times-Tribune. “The equipment operator for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation typically dons a hard hat and works along state roads.”

That article also noted, “Despite the obvious dangers of working in such an environment, Mr. Gillette says he always expects to make it home for dinner with his family. But that doesn’t always happen in his line of work.” In this context, hard hats have also achieved symbolic significance as sobering reminders that protective equipment is not always enough to prevent fatalities or compensate for unsafe drivers in work zones.

This symbolism was clearly on display throughout much of the Keystone State during NWZAW in 2010, when a PennDOT traveling memorial consisted of 78 posts that had been fitted with hard hats as well as safety vests. Those posts represented all of the PennDOT employees who had lost their lives while working in construction areas since 1970.

Photo Credit: OSHA (

Additional information on the origins and evolution of hard hats is available at

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