A hit to the head can result in head traumas such as brain injuries, neck injuries and spinal cord damage. According to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) report, five million new head injuries occur in the U.S. each year. Of that number, two million result in lifelong difficulties in areas of work, school and family. About 100,000 of the most severely injured never resume a productive life. An estimated 750,000 of those injured are hospitalized and another 100,000 die.

The vast majority of individuals — approximately 1.9 million — suffer serious brain injuries that are largely viewed as inconsequential. But for many of these individuals, the damage caused by their injuries only becomes evident over time, and the impairments they suffer can have devastating effects on their lives.

In the workplace, proper protection can prevent many of these head injuries. Let’s start from the top with the hard hat.

Head protection
Hard hats are designed and constructed to resist impact and absorb shock. The one-piece outer shell protects against blows or penetration. The suspension system — consisting of the headband and crown straps — absorbs shock by spreading out the energy of an impact. One of the biggest mistakes is allowing employees to wear their hard hats with the brim facing backwards. This is only safe if the hard hat has a suspension system that allows the user to rotate it within the hat, which keeps the integrity of the suspension system intact. An employee cannot simply turn the hat around on his or her head and expect it to be safe.

Hard hats are classified according to the level of protection provided. Employees should conduct a job hazard analysis to determine the appropriate class of hard hat for the job at hand. A label listing the hard hat’s class is usually found inside the hat.

Hard hats should fit snug but comfortably. Adjustable headbands usually make for the most comfortable hats. Many PPE vendors offer hats with multiple suspension straps for more comfort. If employees are working outdoors in the heat for prolonged periods, ventilated hard hats offer a comfortable alternative. Hard hats must be comfortable enough to withstand an eight-hour workday. You don’t want employees removing their PPE to “take a break from it.”

A hard hat may be the first item of PPE that comes to mind when many of us think of head protection. But the head includes your face, eyes and ears. So head protection goes far beyond a hard hat, including face shields, hearing protection and eye protection.

A vision of safety
Each day, about 2,000 U.S. workers have a job-related eye injury that requires medical treatment. More than 100 of these injuries result in one or more days of lost work. Most are caused by small particles or objects — such as metal slivers, wood chips, dust and cement chips — striking or abrading the eye. Small objects can penetrate the eyeball and cause permanent vision loss. Blunt force trauma to the eyeball or eye socket can occur when large objects strike the eye or face or a worker runs into an object. Other potential eye injuries include thermal burns and chemical burns from splashes of industrial chemicals or cleaning products, and UV radiation burns (welder’s flash).

Some workers may be exposed to infectious diseases that can enter through the mucous membrane of the eye. Diseases can range from minor conjunctivitis or eye soreness to life-threatening infections such as HIV and B Virus.

When it comes to eye protection, the best choices are goggles, face shields or safety glasses. And, like most PPE, it is important that employees wear the right eye protection for the job. Safety glasses are similar to regular eyeglasses. However, the frame and lens are stronger and shields can be added to the sides and top of the safety glasses. Safety goggles form a tight seal around the entire eye area, similar to a mask. A face shield is considered to be secondary protection and must always be worn with either safety glasses or goggles.

Workers should wear safety glasses with side shields when sanding, grinding, chipping, drilling or performing any task with exposure to flying objects or debris. If exposure is extreme, they should wear a face shield. Employees exposed to hot sparks or molten metals should wear goggles and a face shield. Employees who work with chemicals should wear goggles and add a face shield if there is any risk of a chemical splash.

Some types of mists, gases or vapors require specialized safety goggles; check with your eye protection manufacturer to make sure that the level of protection you are providing meets the chemical requirement. Welders require special goggles with filtered lenses to protect against light and radiant energy. Welding helmets provide ultimate protection with filtered lenses and additional protection for the face.

Healthy hearing
Hearing loss is the number one disability in the world and the most preventable. Over 25 million hearing aids are in use today. Seventy-six percent of people suffering hearing damage lost their hearing after the age of 19. Due to an aging population, between 1990 and 2050, the number of hearing-impaired Americans will increase at a faster rate than the total U.S. population.

If employees are exposed to 85 decibels or more during a time-weighted 8-hour average, hearing protection devices must be worn. As an employer, it is your responsibility to have signage in high noise level areas. As a general rule, if you cannot carry on a conversation in a normal voice, you should wear hearing protection. There are two main types of hearing protection: ear muffs and earplugs. Ear muffs provide the best protection for the ears; however, if your employee must also wear safety glasses, earmuffs can interfere with a tight seal.

After-hours activities
When combined, head traumas, eye injuries and hearing loss are some of the most recurring injuries in the workplace, not to mention the most costly. What you teach employees to do during the workday should be applied after work as well. Remind employees to keep volumes at a reasonable level and wear appropriate PPE both on and off the job. Train them to properly use and care for their PPE, and help hazard awareness by posting signage where PPE is required. By being aware of the hazards in your work environment and teaching your employees the proper best safety practices, you can prevent injuries to all parts of the head and maximize your employees’ quality of life.

Brain Injury Resource Center, National Institutes of Health Traumatic Brain Injury Rehabilitation Consensus Statement, October 1998,http://www.headinjury.com/coststbi.htm

NIOSH, Safety & Health Topic: Eye Safety, July 16, 2007,http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/eye/