Helmets and Head Injuries: Construction, Football, Bicycles, Motorcycles, and More

Helmets and Head Injuries: Construction, Football, Bicycles, Motorcycles, and More

If you watch Game of Thrones or Vikings on TV these days, you see early forms of helmets that were used in battle to protect the warrior’s head and neck from injury. Sometimes, this head gear also served as a ceremonial headdress or sent messages through its symbols. This is entertainment taking from history: we know that soldiers were wearing helmets as safety head gear as long ago as in 900 BC Assyria.

Today, helmets have evolved into sophisticated safety devices that are designed for specific types of use. The helmet’s protective function corresponds to the activity or actions undertaken by the person wearing the helmet.

Helmet Types: Work, Transportation, and Sports

Soldiers still wear helmets that are similar in fashion to those worn by police officers and SWAT team members. Construction workers and coal miners wear helmets of a similar design. Likewise, the same type of helmet will be worn by athletes playing football or hockey as well as jockeys riding horses and riders on bicycles.

Motorcycle helmets are of particular importance. In many states, motorcyclists are legally required to wear a specific style of helmet. For more on motorcycle helmet laws in Indiana and Illinois, read our earlier post.

Helmets are Designed to Protect the Head and Brain from Injury

No matter the intended use of a helmet, it’s worn for one main purpose: to protect the human head from serious injury, like a concussion or traumatic brain injury. The helmet also serves to protect the neck somewhat, which can protect against spinal cord injuries, as well.

Helmets do this in several ways.

  1. One way that helmets protect the wearer from harm is by taking the energy or force in a sudden fall or blow. In a football game, the player’s helmet should bear the force or buffer the blow when the player is tackled. Similarly, if a motorcyclist falls from his bike, his motorcycle helmet is designed to absorb the energy, or force, of that fall instead of the rider’s skull.
  2. Another way that helmets are supposed to protect someone from a serious head injury is by protecting the wearer from penetration by an object. A helmet worn by a construction worker is designed so that a falling object, like a hammer, will damage the helmet while protecting the scalp and head of the wearer. A baseball helmet is designed to protect the player from damage if his head is hit by a high-speed baseball.

Different helmets serve different purposes, according to their intended use. They are not designed the same, and they are not made of identical materials. Hard hats on a construction site are obviously very different than your child’s bicycle helmet.

Moreover, within a specific use there are all sorts of options to choose from with different safety features. A motorcyclist can choose from a variety of helmets: full face, modular, half helmets, and off-road are all available for purchase online.

Bicycle helmets also come in all sorts of sizes and shapes. There are road, mountain, commuter, skate, BMX, downhill racing, chrono, youth, toddler and women’s bicycle helmets available today according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.

Key Focus of All Helmets: To Protect Against Permanent Brain Damage and Death

The goal of any helmet, despite the wide variety being sold in the marketplace, is safety. Every single helmet is made to keep the wearer’s head safe from harm in the event of an accident. More to the point, the helmet’s purpose is to protect that wearer from a permanent and life-altering brain injury where the brain is harmed or even worse, to protect the wearer from death caused by an injury that would be fatal absent the helmet.

Nevertheless, there’s no universal helmet law at either the state or federal level. 

Sure, many helmets are regulated by federal law in order to insure that they work as intended in the event of an accident and injury. For instance, bicycle helmets sold in the United States are required to meet minimum safety standards established by 16 C.F.R. 1203, the bicycle helmet standard established by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Under this federal regulation, any bike helmet made after 1999 must be designed as well as tested before it is sold to make sure that the helmet will work as intended; i.e., to protect against a serious brain injury or skull fracture in the event of an accident.  Motorcycle helmet laws have also been passed.

However, for most helmets being worn as safety devices today, you will not find laws regulating how they are made and how they are used.  Other standards exist, but not formal legislation.

For instance, football players on high school or college teams should be wearing helmets that meet national safety standards. The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) is the national organization that sets the standards for student sporting gear, specifically football helmets. Its board of directors is made up of experts in sports medicine and athletic science, and NOCSAE researches the latest technologies and trends and then issues its determined standards for sports equipment and football helmets.

Parents can check their child’s football helmet to find the NOCSAE label with its certification information. This will include date of manufacture and if applicable, date of reconditioning and recertification. The CPSC recommends that all football helmets be monitored to insure that they are NOCSAE compliant.

These are national standards set by the industry, however. These are not state or federal mandates that legally require these NOCSAE minimums be placed in the football helmet. These are helmet design standards established by this research group.

Helmets can save lives in all sorts of ways. Construction accidents, car crashes, motorcycle accidents, sporting injuries, and off-the-road ATV crashes can all result in life-threatening injuries where helmets make all the difference. However, helmets only work if they are suited to their purpose and if they are used correctly. Flawed and faulty helmets will fail when needed. Some helmets are defective in their design, as well.

In our next post, we’ll discuss how helmets and harm go together in a variety of serious accident scenarios. Those wearing helmets need to be aware and alert to the dangers. Be careful out there!

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