100 years of hard hats
The story of construction’s iconic look
Women got the vote. Prohibition began. The National Football League was founded. And, the construction industry was forever changed by the invention of an often-overlooked but significant worker safety advancement: the hard hat.
And while perhaps not considered a great technological invention now, at the time the invention of the hard hat revolutionized and galvanized the businesses and the people behind American industrial boom.
The hard hat comes from a Kentucky-based, family-owned company called Bullard, which was founded in 1898 in San Francisco by Edward Dickinson Bullard. The company originally supplied carbide lamps and other mining equipment to gold and copper miners in California, Nevada and Arizona. When Edward Dickinson Bullard’s son, E.W. Bullard, returned from World War I, he combined his understanding of customer needs and his experience with his doughboy army helmet to design a protective headgear for miners.
Today, the hard hat is the most recognizable safety product worn by workers on industrial job sites around the world. “We are so proud to help workers go home safely at the end of the day, and we celebrate a century of manufacturing innovation in the industrial health and safety and emergency responder markets,” CEO Wells Bullard, says.
“We can all be proud of the role Bullard has played in revolutionizing the safety industry. We are poised to lead our safety markets with even greater advances as we continuously strive to solve the tough problems workers face,” she continues. “As we embark on a year-long celebration highlighting our innovations that have improved the quality of life for workers around the world, I want to say thank you for helping make Bullard an awesome company.”
The “Hard Boiled” hat was introduced in 1919 and represented the first of many innovative designs over the past century that has led Bullard to its prominent position in head protection for industrial and emergency response applications.
“The original ‘Hard Boiled’ hat was manufactured out of steamed canvas, glue, a leather brim and black paint. My great-grandfather built a suspension device into what became the worlds’ first commercially available, industrial head-protection device,” Bullard explains. “We may take it for granted today, but we are proud to be celebrating 100 years of an innovation that truly helped our country grow and kept the hard-working women and men who built it safer.”
During the 1930s, while the Golden Gate Bridge was being constructed in San Francisco, bridge engineer Joseph B. Strauss contacted Bullard to request that the company adapt its hats to protect bridge workers. It was the first area ever designated as a “hard hat area.” Bullard not only supplied hard hats for this famous project, but its engineers also designed an original supplied-air respirator for workers responsible for blasting the steelwork prior to the application of the bridge’s International Orange paint. Bullard went on to design innovative supplied-air respiratory protection solutions for such key industries as pharmaceutical manufacturing and automotive refinishing.
The company continued to innovate the hard hat through the decades. In 1938, Bullard designed and manufactured the first aluminum hard hat, which was considered very durable and reasonably lightweight for the time. “Even today, a few clients still have their 25-year-old aluminum hard hat,” Bullard smiles. “These hats have one serious drawback: aluminum is a great conductor of electricity.”
Bullard’s distinctive three-ribbed, heat-resistant fiberglass hard hat was developed in the 1940s. In the 1950s and 1960s, thermoplastics replaced fiberglass. In 1982, the standard hard hat changed again with the incorporation of a non-slip ratchet suspension with a knob in the back for simple sizing.
The hard hat today is known in the industry as the “Classic” or “Standard” and is produced from polyethylene plastic, making it lightweight, durable, easy-to-mould and non-conductive to electricity. Enhanced with an upgraded suspension system, the Classic incorporates easy-lock snaps for simple installation, easy height adjustment, an enhanced brow pad and is available in cap or full-brim styles. The Vented model fosters more airflow inside the hard hat, keeping the user cool and comfortable while providing quality protection.
One happy customer has been using the Bullard brand for half of the existence of the hard hat. Hawaiian Dredging Construction Company and its 1,000 employees have been in business for 117 years and have built many of the landmark projects in Hawaii. They are Hawaii’s largest general contractor.
According to its health, safety and environmental director, Joaquin Diaz, the long-lasting relationship with Bullard is due to his company’s commitment to providing quality safety products that protect employees. “Daily, head injuries are prevented through our 100 per cent hard hat policy,” Diaz explains. “Relationships don’t last long if trust isn’t part of it. We trust Bullard to produce equipment designed to best protect our employees. In 50 years, there is no doubt about the products and the people presenting these products to us.
“Bullard has a long history in the business. The Bullard people make the company and our interactions with them positive,” Diaz added. “We enjoy the product. The three ribs hard hat design is a fixture and is recognized by many in our industry.”
As Wells Bullard leads her fifth-generation business into the future, she says she understands how rare it is to have a business achieve that type of longevity. “I would say it’s because my family has had a really deep commitment for remaining independent. We believe that’s what’s best for our employees, customers, channel partners and suppliers because it allows us to have a really long-term focus. In the safety industry, thinking about the long-term effects of our products on the workers we are protecting is very valuable. We are constantly evolving. We became an international company in the mid-‘90s. We continue to expand our international presence today and are really focused on innovation and technology and integrating technology into our products. It’s a different company at every generation, I would say.”
Bullard is also a leading manufacturer of other personal protective equipment and systems that are marketed worldwide, including thermal imagers, firefighter and rescue helmets, supplied air respirators, powered air-purifying respirators, and air quality equipment.
“We’ve been very successful for more than 121 years by really watching, carefully observing and then closely listening to our customers and learning what needs they have. Very often, it’s unspoken needs. Customers tell you things they need and sometimes it’s what they don’t specifically ask for that they really need,” Bullard shares. “Our engineers and staff can think about that and leverage that into a better solution. We’re going to continue to listen to our customers and watch them work so we can learn. The Bullard I see in the future is one that builds on our strong brand, legacy, safety and our close relationship with our end-users. If we stay focused on what’s important to us, we’ll be positioned to deliver technology in ways that will truly better solve our customers’ problems.”
The company even has its own fan club. The Turtle Club honours men and women who escaped injury because they were wearing hard hats at the time of industrial accidents. It is a participatory program for workers that has proven to be a valuable adjunct to traditional industry head-protection safety efforts.
The Turtle Club was founded to help increase safety on industrial job sites by encouraging the use of hard hats and was founded in 1946 by C. R. “Rusty” Rustemeyer, safety director at Canadian Forest Products. In 1950, Edward W. Bullard, Sr. was appointed the Turtle Club sponsor. This appointment was particularly appropriate since, in 1919, it was this same man who invented the hard hat. Today, the club’s international sponsor is E. D. “Jed” Bullard, grandson of E. W. Bullard. Because of Jed Bullard’s commitment and efforts, interest in the club remains active and membership continues to grow.
“We’re a company that’s very much focused on safety and we’re thinking about safety for the very long term. We like to think we are delivering peace of mind and that people trust us and trust our equipment in some of the most hazardous environments. And so it’s really important that people understand that we’re doing this for the right reasons,” Bullard says. “We’re dedicated to advancing human safety to enable long, healthy, and productive lives, through innovative solutions. It’s amazing to think it all started with a hard hat. Our line of safety products today includes so much more. We have respiratory protection for pharmaceutical manufacturing and abrasive blasting for metal preparation. We have fire helmets and thermal imaging cameras to protect emergency responders. We like to think that ours is a very noble calling. We get to protect the brave customers: the firefighters who are running into a burning building when everyone else is running out; the people who are researching and making the drugs that will heal those that are sick; the line workers who are restoring power after a storm. We’re really proud of the people we protect, and we look forward to providing future generations with our safety products.”
The company is growing and recently added the Bullard Center in Lexington, Kty., where research and development, new product development, marketing and global shared resources collaborate to develop the next generation of Bullard products and services. Bullard is headquartered in Cynthiana, Kty., where the company’s products are manufacturered, and has offices in Singapore and Germany as well to service customers around the world.
“We have accomplished a lot together and have saved the lives of many during Bullard’s 121 years,” Bullard continues. “Take a look at our rich heritage chronicled on our Century of Innovation website at bullard.com/celebrate. Our Hard Boiled Hat revolutionized safety. Our great tradition of protecting lives through innovative solutions fuels our commitment to Bullard’s future success. This is a great time to be a member of the Bullard family.”