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Study on head sizes, shapes could lead to safer helmets in the workplace

September 3, 2015
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Not all heads are created equal.

Some are so oval that they could be an office in the White House. Others are so circular that they could substitute as Olympic rings. Some are long and narrow like a Rocky Mountain waterfall. Others are short and square like a carefully cut brownie.

Let’s say you are a safety professional at a construction company. And let’s say that your workers have all types of heads – oval, circular, long, square, you name it.

Why would you ask all of them to wear identically shaped hard hats for protection?

That was the question posed by Dr. Jan Beringer and other researchers at the Hohenstein Institute, which is based in Bönnigheim, Germany. Beringer recently led a webinar to discuss a study about adult head shapes and head heights based upon thousands of 3-D scans of men, women and children in Germany. Researchers entered the findings into a sortable database along with establishing head-specific grading guidelines and virtual 3-D head-shape models.

The information might be able to help protective helmet designers as they develop new products, researchers say. They cited German insurance information that listed approximately 79,000 workplace incidents in which head injuries were reported in 2011. Head injuries also may lead to other complications such as paralysis and speech disorder.

“Fit is very important for the right protection, so fit-optimized helmets are needed,” Beringer said. “Overall, it’s a growing safety demand, either by the employer or the government but also from the private consumer.”

In Germany alone, 10 million workers require head protection. That’s not to mention 68 million bicyclists in Germany who benefit from helmets, or 16 million skiers, or … well, you get the idea. Industries with significant needs for helmets and hard hats include construction, forest operation, firefighters, military members and more.

Researchers listed five categories for head shapes: normal, round, oval, extremely round and extremely oval. They established five more categories for head heights: extra short, short, normal, long and extra long.

“[Head heights] are especially important for the belt of the helmet,” Beringer said. “If the belt is too short, it cannot be closed.”

If the belt can’t be closed properly, the helmet might slip forward or backward. That could affect the areas of the head protected by the helmet if a worker falls.

Additional research could include impact testing that includes varying head sizes and shapes.

“Impact testing was not part of this project, but you can imagine as soon as the helmet does not fit properly to the head shape, the impact forces cannot be well distributed over the whole head shape,” Beringer said. “There’s a clear link between the shape and the fit of the head and the impact resistance of the impact protection.”

The opinions expressed in "On Research" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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