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Bump up your head protection

For workers who risk hitting their heads against fixed objects, bump caps help soften the blow
By Linda Johnson
| Canadian Occupational Safety

As president of a safety management consulting company, Alan Quilley has advised many employers about head protection. It helps that he can speak from experience — he often had to wear hard hats when he was a mechanic working on railway cars.

“As soon as we were underneath the railway car, there was a danger of a head injury, so we had to wear a hard hat,” says Quilley of Sherwood Park, Alta.-based Safety Results. “But if I had my choice, if I was working under a vehicle now, I would wear one of these baseball-style bump caps. They look good and they feel good. They’re much different from a hard hat.”

When workers suffer a blow to the head or the head comes in contact with a harmful material, the resulting injury can be traumatic and life-threatening. No wonder, then, protective headwear is primarily designed to prevent such injuries. But workers are often exposed to the risk of less serious injuries — bruises, lacerations and small cuts — caused by hitting the head. Bump caps help protect workers against these injuries that, although regarded as minor, may reduce ability to work and are often painful. They are used when workers are working around a fixed object, like equipment or machinery, as well as near hanging obstructions and sharp corners. The rigid shell, due to its hardness, reduces the risk of puncture and helps distribute the impact when a worker strikes a solid object.

“The idea of a bump cap is to protect people who are, through their own bodily action, going to bump into things. It’s not something falling on you or being thrown at you. The cap is not very good for impact because there’s no cushioning between the hard plastic and the head,” Quilley says. “Working under vehicles is the classic case, where a mechanic has a raised vehicle and is working under it. As the person turns and moves under the vehicle, they could bump into things that are hanging down. The cap is meant to just soften that bodily reaction of bumping into something.”

There are two levels of bump caps, says Tim Wolski, product marketing manager for head and face at Franklin, Pa.-based Honeywell Safety Products. One type, a “hard hat light,” is a plastic shell and looks like a hard hat, but it is smaller and does not have the engineering that goes into a regular hard hat. These caps come with internal suspension designed simply to hold the plastic shell away from a person’s head. This type of bump cap is not very comfortable, sits high on the head, is fairly bulky and is not very attractive, he adds.

“But it is inexpensive and it does the job.”

The other type of bump cap, baseball-style, is made of textile materials and is equipped with an internal hard plastic shell and padding that is often made of foam. In some cases, the bump cap shell is available separately and can be inserted into the lining of a standard baseball cap. These caps generally have no suspension built in. They are particularly useful where working space is limited because they fit closely to the worker’s head and don’t require much overhead clearance.

“This one is a lot more comfortable and more attractive. It also tends to get less in the way — the first type can sit 2 inches above a person’s head. Depending on how tight of a place you’re working in, that can make it difficult for you. You have a lot more bumps with that high bump cap on top of your head,” Wolski says.

The material used to make the shell of a bump cap can vary but is most commonly high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Caps come with different brim lengths, from a standard baseball-cap brim length to a very short brim length for tight spaces. The caps are very lightweight and have optional features, such as customized logos (on the baseball-style caps), adjustable chin straps, removable brow pads (to absorb moisture) and perforated sides for ventilation to keep the worker’s head cooler and reduce sweating. The baseball-style cap generally comes in fewer colours and is more expensive than the plastic shell type. For example, Honeywell’s baseball cap sells for US$27, while its basic plastic shell type sells for US$8.

In addition to auto repair, bump caps are designed for use in manufacturing and in jobs where overhead structures cause workers to bump their heads. They are used in industries such as automotive, meat packing, food and beverage processing, pest control and home inspection, as well as in assembly facilities and warehousing.

While bump caps are helpful in some situations, they are often not the head protection of choice, Quilley says. Where workers are moving between different tasks or areas, some that require a hard hat and others that don’t, they may not want to have to keep changing their head protection.

“For example, while I’m working under the vehicle, I could wear a bump cap. Then, I get out from under the vehicle, but I’m in a shop that has an overhead crane. Now, there’s a danger of falling objects, so I am legally required to put on a hard hat. Some people would always have to be changing hats and they would have to own two pieces of equipment,” he says. “In some shops, you could easily have two kinds of operations going on and that’s why you would have to default to the greater protection.”

Bump caps cannot replace hard hats. The shell is thinner and weaker than that of a hard hat. Moreover, because they lack a hard hat’s engineered suspension, which absorbs the energy from an impact on the shell and spreads the force evenly over the wearer’s head, bump caps cannot protect a worker against a major impact, says Claudio Dente, president of Newmarket, Ont.-based Dentec Safety Specialists.

“Bump caps don’t provide much of any protection because they are not designed to provide head protection like a hard hat. Hard hats are CSA approved for impact and penetration and dielectric (against electric shock and burns) protection. Bump caps don’t do any of that,” he says.

As a result, he adds, a safety manager has to decide based on a risk analysis of overhead hazards, whether a bump cap is sufficient protection. If not, legally compliant head protection is required.

“A hard hat provides protection against a serious injury. A bump cap doesn’t protect against anything other than bumps and scrapes — that’s it,” he says. “If the application deems it necessary that you need an approved hard hat because there’s a potential exposure to injury from the impact of falling or glancing (flying) objects, hard hats must be worn. The employer has to select the right device for the situation.”

There is no CSA standard for bump caps and no nationally recognized standard for the caps in Canada. They are not CSA or ANSI approved. However, there is a European standard — EN 812: 2012 — that sets out design criteria and impact requirements. Caps are tested and those meeting the standard are marked as EN 812-certified.

Generally, provincial regulation requires employers provide approved industrial protective headwear, and, in most cases, also requires headwear that meets CSA Z94.1 standard (which does not apply to bump caps), ANSI Z89.1 or an equivalent standard. The rare mentions of bump caps, as in the regulations of Alberta and Manitoba, state that an employer may permit workers to wear “bump hats” only when the risk of injury is limited.


In selecting bump caps, safety managers or workers should look at protective coverage — make sure the cap covers the areas of the head where bumps are likely to occur. A bump cap should fit securely and be comfortable. Both the plastic shell and baseball-style caps can be adjusted to fit better. Choosing a hat with well-placed vents on the sides will increase comfort.

Appearance is also a factor in selection, Wolski says, but how much weight is given to it will depend in large part on whether the employee deals with the public.

“A lot of times, the biggest complaint we hear is, this isn’t very attractive. So, people usually consider that as well.”

Bump caps should be checked periodically to see if they are still in good condition, he adds. Look for changes in how a cap bends or moves. If there are any cracks, the cap should be replaced.

As with most safety equipment, Quilley says, employers should allow workers to try out and select the particular make of protective headwear they will wear. Once, he recalls, during a review of a company’s safety program, he asked shop mechanics about the bump caps they were wearing. The mechanics worked in the trucking division of a shop that maintained vehicles for companies in the oil and gas industry. They would often elevate the trailers to work on the undercarriage.

Before buying the bump caps, the shop had brought in a number of caps of different styles and from different manufacturers and asked workers to evaluate them.

“I saw the mechanics wearing baseball-style bump caps and I asked them how they liked them. They loved them. They got to pick them,” he says.

“And, I found it really interesting: I was in the coffee room later and saw them sitting there and they were still wearing the caps. That tells you something. People who are not comfortable in their hats take them off when they can.”

Bump caps effectively reduce painful injuries, Quilley says. He does not know a mechanic who hasn’t bumped into something underneath a car.

“As soon as you’ve done that, you wish you had something harder between you and the thing you bumped into,” he says. “Typically, you turn to get your wrench or something and you hit your head into something hard. And that hurts. Most people who wear them appreciate them.”

Linda Johnson is a Toronto-based freelance journalist who has been writing for COS for seven years.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2018 issue of COS.

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