Hard hats and headaches: A real pain?

We all know how important head protection is in many workplaces. But some people working in construction, industrial operations and other fields where hard hats are required say head protection is a pain — literally.

“I get a headache every time I put one on,” says one commenter on a web message board for drywallers. “Got ‘em always with me but hardly use ‘em.”

Some workers who suffer from hard hat-induced headaches may take extra steps to ensure the hat isn’t too tight or take painkillers to ease the pain. But for others, the cure is to remove the headgear, and that is a terrifying thought for many health and safety professionals who work in industries where removing hard hats could put employees at a significant risk.

The first step in helping employees deal with headaches is to determine which of the dozens of headache types an employee is experiencing.

“People need to learn what type of headaches they have before they start looking for treatment,” says Brent Lucas, executive director of Help for Headaches, a London, Ont.-based non-profit.

Some wearers might contend with problems related to tightness if they suffer from compression headaches, which occur when these individuals don any sort of headgear that fits snugly, including hard hats.

Compression isn’t the only potential pain generator. A rare condition called allodynia is the difficulty for some individuals. Sufferers experience pain from what would normally be non-painful stimulation of the skin, such as a light touch. For these people, wearing a hard hat could be unbearably painful, says Lucas. Since allodynia usually follows a migraine, sufferers are advised to treat the migraine primarily, as a way to snuff out the allodynia before it takes hold.

For his part, Lucas used to get chronic cluster headaches, which generally occur on one side of the head at about the same time every day. He found them debilitating.

“They got worse every day. I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t do anything. My life was crazy.”

Lucas went to the Michigan Headache and Neurological Institute (MHNI) for help. The in-patient intravenous medication he received there worked. This inspired him to start a headache support group, which evolved into Help for Headaches. 

Keep the lid on, or else

Whatever the solution might be for hard hat headache sufferers, removing hard hats in situations where protection is an absolute must — on a construction site, for example — is not an option. Kari Harris, London, Ont.-based vice-president of occupational health and safety at EllisDon says hard hats are mandatory for all site workers, including superintendents, field engineers, safety co-ordinators and subcontractors.

But sometimes employees wonder if the hard hat requirements are really all that important.

“Workers have to associate it with a risk,” Harris says. “If they feel that the risk is minimal or the requirements are optional, that’s when it becomes more subjective for them — if they’ll wear it or not.”

While she has heard “all sorts of excuses,” Harris has not encountered workers complaining about headaches due to hard hats.

The company reinforces the importance of hard hats in many ways, including during training, daily hazard assessments and safe-work plans. Signage is also “a big one” with the different types of personal protective equipment being clearly identified in certain areas, says Harris.

EllisDon employees also learn about the consequences of failing to wear hard hats.

“We have a progressive warning system depending on the severity of the infraction,” Harris says, describing the “verbal, written and gone” arrangement.

A worker would receive a verbal warning for the first infraction, a ticket for his second infraction and a third infraction usually results in a suspension and then termination of employment.

She has seen government inspectors issue fines to workers for failing to comply with hard hat regulations. When asked if that puts too much of the responsibility on the individual employee rather than the employer, she says worker-focused fines help employees take charge of their own safety.

“While the employer can emphasize safety measures, there’s a huge onus on workers to ensure they’re also taking the necessary steps to protect themselves. Everybody has a part.”

Kevin Wolff is the Edmonton-based district health and safety manager at PCL Construction. Like Harris, he has yet to hear complaints that hard hats cause headaches — and he notes that employees generally accept the need for hard hats.

He says it’s important for people to wear the right type of hard hat for their work. For instance, since many hard hats have peaks at the front, sometimes workers are inclined to turn their hats around so the peak is at the back, for better upward visibility. But a backwards hard hat won’t fit properly, which means it won’t protect as effectively.

“It has to be designed for that purpose,” Wolff says. A reversible hard hat is the solution. 

Get updated headgear

Wolff adds that modern hard hats are lighter and more comfortable to wear than previous iterations.

“They’ve come a long way with the materials they use — definitely with side-impact hard hats. They’re still heavier than standard hard hats because they’re thicker, but they’re lighter than they used to be.”

Today’s hard hats are easier to adjust than earlier models, now that the suspension systems inside the hats employ ratcheting adjusters instead of pin-locks, according to John Greer, president and COO of hard hat manufacturer Dynamic Safety in Laval, Que. Wearers can easily adjust the size for a comfortably snug fit. Some models also include pieces of foam on the ratchet and comfort pads throughout the hard hat, so nothing is “digging into a worker’s skull,” says Greer.

This technology can help reduce a worker’s headaches if they are from hard hats that are too heavy or poor fitting, he says.

A lower nape strap that secures the hat around the back of the neck can also decrease head pressure, says Sean Donovan, regional sales development manager for MSA Safety in Toronto.

Workers seek hard hats that are comfortable, secure, well-balanced and easy to adjust, says Donovan. Employers should strive to give workers a hard hat they “want to wear instead of one they have to wear,” he says.

“Making PPE (personal protective equipment) comfortable is the number-one way to increase compliance.”

New hard hat technology might help headache sufferers whose pain really does relate to headgear. But as Lucas points out, there are many different kinds of headaches. Allodynia sufferers will experience pain even if they wear the lightest, most comfortable hard hat available. For other people, headaches might have nothing to do with the protective headgear.

Lucas recommends individuals who get headaches join their companies’ health and safety groups. As he puts it, employees and employers can work together to understand why the pain occurs and identify potential long-term solutions.

Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer based in Ottawa. He can be reached at [email protected].


Workers can experience a wide variety of headaches that are not related to hard hat use. Employers should educate workers on these different types so they do not mistakenly blame their head pain on a hard hat. 

Migraine without aura: Usually this is a one-sided very painful headache, which can last four to 72 hours. It is severe in intensity and is often seen in women who are in their child-bearing years. It is a pulsating or throbbing sensation of pain. Changes in brain chemistry produce neurological and physical symptoms. Sometimes migraines can be brought on by a food, weather or stress.

Migraine with aura: The aura is characterized by symptoms such as flickering lights, wavy or zigzag lines and black spots in the field of vision. Numbness on one side of the face or hand can also occur as can difficulty speaking, imbalance, vertigo, loss of consciousness and paralysis. The headache following the aura is typically one-sided with a throbbing or pounding sensation.

Tension-type headache: These are found in more than three-quarters of headache patterns. They are felt on both sides of the head and are described as tight, non-pulsating, pressing or squeezing band-like pain. The location of the pain often moves, covering the temples, crown, front or back of the head and neck. Unlike a migraine, this headache is usually not aggravated by daily routine.

Cluster headache: Almost all cluster headache sufferers are male and the pain lasts from one to three hours. These one-sided headache attacks come in bouts or a series of pain, and a teary eye or a drooped eyelid on the affected side is common. Cluster headache sufferers are in so much pain that they typically bang their heads on the wall in frustration. Direct oxygen has been an effective relief for some.

Sinus headache: A true sinus headache will show up on an X-ray and the sufferer will experience a yellow-green discharge from the nasal area. It is usually associated with constant pain and tenderness over the sinus and a deep, dull ache exaggerated by head movements or straining. Therapy is usually directed toward relief of the sinus infection or accompanying allergy.

Source: Help for Headaches

This article originally appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of COS.