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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Hard hats save lives in highway construction zones

“National Work Zone Awareness Week (NWZAW) is an annual spring campaign held at the start of construction season to encourage safe driving through highway work zones.” NWZAW is being held this week (April 11-15, 2022). Although the Federal Highway Administration and each of the state departments of transportation want drivers to use extra caution in work zones 24/7/365, NWZAW shines a spotlight on work zone safety. 

FreightWaves Classics is publishing a new article on NWZAW each day this week. Here are links to Monday’s article, Tuesday’s article and Wednesday’s article. 


Hard hats (also called safety hats) are worn by workers in many different industries around the United States and across the globe. A hard hat became a key piece of personal protective equipment for workers in road construction decades ago. Hard hats are worn to help “cushion the head against blows from motor vehicle crashes, flying objects, and other causes of potentially dangerous impacts in work zones.” Although they cannot prevent all head-related injuries or fatalities, hard hats contribute to greater on-the-job safety for road construction workers.

The 2020 NWZAW poster featured a man and woman wearing hard hats. (Photo:
The 2020 NWZAW poster featured a man and woman wearing hard hats. (Photo:

The first hard hats

In 1989, the Technology for Alaskan Transportation newsletter printed an article about the origins of today’s hard hats. It turns out that their predecessors date back to ancient civilizations. “The subject of head protection has a rather interesting history,” according to the article. “Safety hats as we know them have been around for some 60 years, but protective headgear is a lot older than that. Vikings made leather helmets and Roman soldiers used polished metal helmets for protection against blows of the enemy.”

During the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, mechanization and other technological advances grew rapidly. Many workers built helmets of one kind or another to protect their heads while working in a variety of high-risk settings. 

In 1898, Edward Bullard founded a business that sold lamps and other equipment to mining companies in the western United States. More than a decade later, he began to focus on making headgear that would protect miners from falling debris. He eventually developed a helmet that was similar to the ones worn by U.S. soldiers during World War I. Bullard was granted a U.S. patent for his helmet in 1919; it became the first commercial hard hat. The company that he founded is still in business and still sells hard hats.

The progression of hard hats. (Image:
The progression of hard hats. (Image:

Bullard’s patented hard hat began to spread to other hazardous work sites. Among the first major transportation projects at which it was worn was the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge between 1933 and 1937. Bullard was hired by Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer of the bridge, to design a customized hard hat for his work crew. Strauss was concerned about their safety and the possibility of serious head injuries. 

Not long before construction was finished, the Golden Gate Bridge’s status as a designated hard-hat area became a publicity magnet. Actress Jane Wyatt (best known now as the mother on the TV series Father Knows Best) visited the construction site.

Actress Jane Wyatt on the Golden Gate Bridge, wearing a hard hat. (Photo:
Actress Jane Wyatt on the Golden Gate Bridge, wearing a hard hat. (Photo:

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.” 

Since the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, hard hats have become a standard part of the “wardrobe” of road construction workers (and many others on construction projects of all kinds). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began issuing regulations for the use of hard hats in 1971. Now, even visitors to most construction sites of any kind must don a hard hat before visiting or inspecting a site.

In the 1940s, hard hats made of fiberglass were introduced. During the following decade, most hard hats were made from thermoplastic. In 1961, the first hard hat made from polycarbonate was introduced. Today, most hard hats are manufactured from high-density polyethylene or advanced engineering resins. Over time, hard hats have become lighter, while also offering greater protection to their wearers.

Media coverage of hard hats and what they mean in a construction zone

Along with their protective function, hard hats have become “shorthand” for “caution” in road construction areas. For example, during NWZAW 2010, the Hackensack (New Jersey) Record emphasized that drivers who saw “hard hats in work zones along roads and highways” should slow down “and use extra caution.”  

In addition, a 2002 article in the Scranton (Pennsylvania) Times-Tribune also mentioned the importance of hard hats for employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. “Scott Gillette doesn’t wear a shirt and tie or carry a briefcase to his office,” the  Times-Tribune article stated. “The equipment operator for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation typically dons a hard hat and works along state roads.”

That article continued, “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.” 

So hard hats have also attained the status of a symbolic reminder that any/all of the protective equipment that workers in road construction zones wear may not be enough to prevent fatalities. 

When you encounter the warning signs that you are about to enter a highway construction zone, slow down, watch out for the workers and for other drivers who may not be as cautious.

A poster from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
A poster from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.