From Hard Hats to Holograms: 100 Years of Construction Safety

From Hard Hats to Holograms: A Brief History of Construction Safety

Whether they’re working on high-rises or in underground tunnels, construction workers face a multitude of health and safety hazards on the job. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, falls rank number one on the list of construction safety risks. Other common dangers include falling objects, electrocutions, equipment and motor vehicle crashes, and getting caught between objects. Construction reports the highest number of workplace fatalities of any industry. While some accidents are inevitable, many are caused by improper training and supervision. As a result, the industry is constantly seeking to improve site safety and protect its workers. Here’s a look at the evolution of construction safety over the past century, from the introduction of the hard hat to the use of virtual reality in safety training. 

The Early Days of Construction Safety

Calls for improvements in worker safety began after the Civil War: newly familiar with how costly injury and illness could be for families, workers started saving for health insurance and companies started to offer either insurance or increased pay rates to accommodate on-the-job risks. By the early 1900s, worker safety advocates were gaining traction. Statewide and national regulations (such as worker’s compensation laws) and regulatory agencies (including the National Safety Council and the U.S. Department of Labor) were created to protect workers and benefit employers by making costs more predictable and workers more engaged and satisfied.

In 1919, when Edward Bullard returned from serving in World War I, he noticed that buildings, bridges, and dams were getting taller, and the risks to mining and construction workers were getting worse. Bullard and his father teamed up to create a solution: a helmet modeled after those worn by World War I soldiers, designed to protect workers from falling objects. They called these Hard Boiled Hats, and the original models were made out of canvas and leather. These hard hats featured a suspension system to create distance between the helmet and the worker’s skull, decreasing the impact of objects that struck the hat. Some homemade helmets were already being used by shipping and mining workers, but this invention was the first major innovation in construction safety. 

The Rise of Construction Safety Regulations

In the 1930s, two major construction projects changed the industry forever. The Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge attracted national attention, and leaders on both projects made an effort to protect their workers by implementing the first-known mandated safety regulations. The Golden Gate Bridge’s Chief Engineer, Joseph Strauss, took a two-pronged approach to improving site safety. First, he set strict safety requirements, including the use of hard hats, respirator masks, nets, safety goggles, and more, plus the presence of on-site medical professionals. Next, he created accountability: he forbade unsafe and distracted behavior on his project, and anyone who was caught violating the rules was terminated. Those consequences demonstrated his commitment to worker safety - to him, losing one’s job was preferable to losing one’s life. Those changes resulted in a significant decrease in workplace accidents and fatalities, and over time, safety mandates caught on throughout the country. In the 1970s, the Occupational Health & Safety Act was passed, ensuring that working conditions would be safe and healthy. Two organizations were created as a result of that act: the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health conducts research and makes safety recommendations, while the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) sets and enforces standards and also provides training and education to protect workers nationwide.

Improvements to Construction Safety Technology 

Since the introduction of the hard hat, there have been substantial technological advancements throughout the industry. Hard hat designs evolved from the original canvas to metal, and then fiberglass, and then eventually to the current plastic material. The hat’s currently technology is similar to its original conception: it still includes the hard shell and an interior suspension system that helps protect workers from falling objects. However, new developments are underway to protect workers who become the falling objects, including increased padding. Other areas of construction safety technology have seen more dramatic innovations, from the introduction of robotics and drones to the advent of artificial intelligence. Using these new technologies, companies can limit the amount of dangerous tasks assigned to human beings, and they can also better train those human workers through virtual reality simulations to prevent on-the-job disasters. 

The Future of Construction Safety

The use of high-tech innovations such as robotics and artificial intelligence is still in the early stages, so as the industry becomes better educated and more confident in these technologies, their use will become more widespread. Wearable safety equipment is also on the rise, with vests and other clothing items designed to track workers’ vital signs and provide data to better protect them in the field. New technologies will make construction workers’ jobs safer, and they will also lead to the creation of new safety and technology jobs within the industry. The makeup of the construction workforce is also changing to include more women than ever before, but existing safety equipment was designed with men in mind. As a result, construction safety equipment manufacturers and construction companies are working together to create equipment in the correct sizes to optimally protect women as well as men.

Construction safety is of paramount importance to companies and workers throughout the industry, and both technology and regulations are continually evolving to better protect workers. The best thing a construction company can do to help keep its employees safe is to stay up to date on the ongoing changes and provide regular training and education opportunities for every employee. Other steps might include creating strict safety standards and enforcing them, mandating accountability at every level of the organization, addressing substance abuse, carefully reviewing any accidents to prevent repeated issues, holding regular site inspections, and adopting robotics and virtual reality technologies wherever possible to reduce the risks to human workers. After all, nothing is more important than the safety of your employees.