Thursday, July 23, 2020

Head Gear

Since a couple of us seem to be on a PPE theme, I thought I'd cover a oft-forgotten piece: helmets. Protecting your noggin is important in a lot of scenarios, from daily activities like riding a bike or working in construction or in a busy factory to the more extreme situations like exploring caves or searching damaged structures. Your head contains your brain, and since that is your most important tool for surviving most anything life can throw at you, it's worth protecting.

Helmets come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes; form tends to follow function, so you'll be able to look at a helmet and get a good idea of what its purpose is. I'll break the available options down into two main groups and give example of some of the subsets within the two groups.

Blunt Force Protection

Bicycle Helmets
Designed to offer protection against low-speed falls on various surfaces, most bicycle helmets are made of a thin, hard plastic shell with a crushable foam liner. Many have a air holes to ventilate the helmet and keep your head cooler while you're expending energy pedaling a bike. They don't cover the ears, so your hearing won't be impaired. Straps can be either a chin strap that cups your chin or a single strap that sits under your chin. These are a common sight on rioters since they are readily available and not obviously riot gear, while offering some protection against thrown or swung weapons.

Motorcycle Helmets
Similar to bicycle helmets, but with a thicker, harder shell usually made of fiberglass. These are designed to absorb the shock of higher-speed impacts and protect better against abrasion. There are several types;
  • Skull caps (AKA Potato Chips) are popular in states that require helmets while riding a motorcycle. They cover the top of the head but don't extend below the top of the ears. These offer very limited protection, but they don't muffle the noises around you like other styles.
  • Full helmets cover the top and sides of your head and may have a Snell or DOT rating sticker to prove that they offer a standard of protection. There is usually a clear or tinted visor that flips down to keep the bugs off of your face, but that is the extent of facial protection.
  • Full-face helmets are full helmets with a bar that wraps around your chin to give coverage in the event you end up face down on the ground. When I rode motorcycles, this was my preferred style even though they are heavier and hotter than the other styles. The visor of a full-face helmet is usually a tight fit to the helmet itself, offering good protection against wind and rain. Shop around and you can find options like built-in speakers/microphone and Bluetooth connection for use with your radio and phone.

Industrial Hard Hats
Having worn one of these at work for 16 years, I can attest that they do protect against bumps and small falling objects. Lacking a chin strap, they are held on by a somewhat rigid strap that fits under the base of your skull in the back. Wearing one for 8-12 hours at a time is not uncomfortable, but they do block your vision similar to a ball cap, and add a couple of inches to your height which makes it easier to run into low-hanging obstacles. Metal ones are rare but still available; most job sites don't allow them because they can conduct electricity, but they are better than the plastic ones at deflecting small falling objects.

The interior is a series of nylon straps connected to the rim of the helmet, so impact energy is spread out rather that absorbed. One of the trade-offs of having the webbing is the gap between your scalp and the helmet itself: this is necessary for the shock absorption, but also makes them hard to insulate in cold weather. Having a brisk breeze blowing across the top of your head in below freezing temperatures is not comfortable.

A cross between bicycle helmets and a hard hat, these are designed to protect against falling rocks and bashing your head into overhead obstructions. There is usually a chin strap to keep it on your head, and make sure it is fitted properly to keep the helmet from slipping as you bend and twist to get around things. They aren't as well vented as a bicycle helmet, but they are designed to provide better coverage and be worn for long periods of time. This is what you'll see search and rescue crews wearing in a disaster area to protect against falling debris and overhead obstructions.

Riot Helmets
This is one I've seen but never worn. The various styles seem to fit and function like a climbing/caving helmet, but with a thick plastic visor covering the face. Designed to protect against thrown objects and melee weapons (sticks, baseball bats, etc.), most police forces have them in stock. The plastic visor can vary in thickness from thin plexiglass to thick ballistic plastic capable of stopping small caliber bullets, depending on how much the police department wants to spend.

Ballistic Helmets
The military has been using helmets to protect troops for centuries. Early ones were designed to deflect a sword blow or arrow, but the newer ones are for slowing or stopping bullets and shrapnel in a war zone.

Steel Pot
I'm old enough to have been issued a steel pot helmet and helmet liner. The helmet liner was a fiberglass shell with a nylon web inside similar to a hard hat, and the steel shell fit snugly over the top of it. Soldiers used this system in the US for several decades and found a plethora of “alternative” uses for the steel pot. You could strip the cover off and set the steel shell directly on a fire to heat water for cooking or cleaning; I know hot water makes a big difference when trying to shave in the field. The front edge was shaped like a shovel, and in a pinch you could use the helmet as one. The chin strap made a good handle, so it also made a handy “basket” for carrying small items. The uses were almost endless.

A few decades ago the US military switched to a more bullet-resistant helmet. The kevlar fibers that it is made of are stronger than steel and do a good job of stopping pistol caliber bullets, but a heavy rifle round will still have a good chance of penetrating. Heavier than the steel pot, they are also less useful for alternative purposes. The current design provides better coverage of the sides of the head and ears than the steel pot design, almost like a full motorcycle helmet.
A lot of police departments have adopted military equipment, so you may see these on riot control squads and SWAT teams.

Going further than a hat, helmets offer protection for the most important tool you have. Get the best you can afford that will give you the protection you need! The common advice in motorcycle shops is, “If you have a $50 brain, buy a $50 helmet”.

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