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How the company that invented the hard hat is preparing for a hotter future

Bullard patented the world’s first hard hat a century ago. But today, as more workers toil in extreme heat, it’s adding more features.

How the company that invented the hard hat is preparing for a hotter future
[Photo: Bullard]

Global warming, wildfires, pandemics: The world is becoming more treacherous for everyone, but this is even more true for people in already hazardous professions.

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CEO Wells Bullard [Photo: Bullard]
Just ask Wells Bullard, CEO and fifth-generation owner of Bullard, the company that invented the hard hat. For the past 124 years, Bullard has developed head gear and other safety equipment for the most dangerous industries imaginable. Its products promise to shield construction workers’ heads from falling debris, protect firefighters from heat and smoke, and keep sandblasters from inhaling toxic fumes and particles. But today, as climate change evolves from a looming threat to an everyday reality, Bullard must redesign many of these products to protect workers from increasing temperatures.

[Photo: Bullard]
Edward Dickinson Bullard launched the company in 1898 in San Francisco to supply gold and copper miners with oil for their lamps. But when his son, E. W. Bullard, returned from World War One, it occurred to him that the army helmet he wore in the trenches would be useful to the miners, who were often exposed to falling rocks. He designed the first-ever hard hat in 1915, which was made from layers of canvas that were steamed together with glue, a featured a leather brim, and a shock-absorbing suspension device inside.

Over the next decades, this hat was adapted to the needs of firefighters and construction workers. Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge, partnered with the company to create a hard hat tailored to protecting workers from falling rivets and particles released from sand blasting. “What we do at Bullard hasn’t really changed,” says Bullard, who is the founder’s great-great-granddaughter. “We watch workers closely and think about what products we can design to help them work productively and go home safely.”

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[Photo: Bullard]
In the 1970s Bullard moved its headquarters from California to Kentucky, and now has a workforce of more than 500. Wells Bullard took over as CEO in 2017 after nearly a decade working in her family’s business in a range of roles, including product development and manufacturing. The company has always been focused on improving products by incorporating cutting-edge new materials and technologies, like polyurethane foam that protects against impact. But Bullard says that she’s observed workers face increasing dangers over the past few years—most notably, extreme heat and more frequent wildfires. So, the company is working hard to adapt its products to keep construction workers cool as they spend hours in sweltering weather and firefighters safe as they are exposed to more blazes.

[Photo: Bullard]
When it comes to the hard hats for firefighters, Bullard has incorporated new components, like moisture-wicking brow pads. But she says, as the company’s designers worked closely with firefighters, they realized that one of the best ways to keep these workers cool is by reducing the weight they must carry on their head. So, the team has been working on designing the lightest-weight hard hat possible. The company’s newest helmet is one of the lightest on the market, at about 50 ounces, thanks to the use of a new kind of fiberglass composite shell that reduces weight without compromising on protection. “We’ve been focused on using material science to get the weight out of the helmet, which helps with overall heat stress, which taxes the lungs and heart,” Bullard says.

[Photo: Bullard]
To protect construction workers, the company has launched new products designed to provide quick relief from heat. For instance, it has launched a vest that can cool the body for up to four hours by maintaining a constant temperature of 55° F. It works by using a material called Isotherm, which maintains low temperatures without creating condensation. To use it, workers must submerge the vest in a cooler with ice water for 20 minutes.

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[Photo: Bullard]
Over the past two years, Bullard had to consider how it could support workers who might be exposed to COVID-19 virus particles. After all, scientists believe that climate change is going to increase the frequency of pandemics. The company had already been making respirators for workers who might inhale fumes or toxic particles, but it quickly decided to pivot to create new products that could work in settings where COVID-19 exposure was inevitable, including healthcare settings. When the pandemic struck, the company began work on a range of new devices, including a lightweight hood with a clear face shield that covers the entire head and comes with a tube for air supply. The company claims it offers a hundred times the protection of an N-95 mask, while making it easier to breathe. Bullard released the hood in the thick of global health crisis, and it was adopted by doctors and nurses in COVID-19 wards around the world, including Harrison Memorial Hospital in Kentucky and Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell, New Jersey. “We went from zero to having a product in 12 months,” Bullard says. “We’ve been in business for a long time, but the new threats are coming at us quickly, and we need to work fast.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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