During World War I, a young lieutenant in the U.S. Army cavalry named Edward W. Bullard watched as many of his fellow soldiers were protected from bullets and shrapnel by a relatively simple device: the helmet. When the war finally ended, Bullard returned to San Francisco and produced similar safety hats to protect peacetime workers.

The first hard-boiled hat, as it was called, was made of canvas, leather glue and black paint, and the item was marketed largely to miners. Today, hard hats are primarily made of polyethylene or other synthetic plastics and are worn by millions of workers in hundreds of industries.

They’ve also adopted additional colours. While all of the early hard-boiled hats were black, today’s hardhats come in several colours, and each has a specific designation.

The Reasons Behind Hard Hat Colour Codes

There are two main reasons for using the Hard Hat Colour Code system: speed and safety. While it may seem like a stylistic choice, the colour of this piece of crucial equipment can communicate a lot about who is responsible on a job site, or what their role is. It can also provided an added layer of safety depending on the type of site an individual is working in — for example, a hat with a colour that contrasts the surroundings will be easier to spot in case of any accidents or incidents.

Coloured hard hats allow workers to quickly and easily locate whoever they need to find. If they need a supervisor, they look for the white hat. If they need an electrician, they’ll look for a blue hat. This is critical on large worksites, high rises or long stretches of highway where crowds of workers and distances may make identification difficult. It prevents workers from wasting time searching all over a worksite, which reduces safety risks.

It also allows a worker to quickly locate who they need in an emergency, whether that is someone who can shut down the power or someone to offer medical assistance. It can also add an extra layer of safety in busy worksites, to ensure no one is overlooked, as a colourful hat will generally stand out more than an individual wearing neutral clothing with a neutral hair colour.

White Hard Hats

Did you know that white is one of the easiest colours for the human eye to see? This makes it quick to spot, even amidst a sea of other hard hats, so this shade is usually reserved for supervisors, managers, architects and engineers. This way, if a worker or visitor is looking for someone responsible, they're much easier to spot amidst all the other workers.

Orange Hard Hats

Road construction workers are generally given orange hard hats. Orange is highly visible, even at long distance, making it easier for oncoming traffic to spot and slow down for workers. Traffic marshals and lifting operators must also wear orange hard hats.

Green Hard Hats

Green is a colour that is usually linked to safety, so it stands to reason that safety inspectors will frequently wear green helmets. They’re also worn by newer workers or staff currently on probation.

Red Hard Hats

Given the association of fire with the colour red, this colour is a natural fit for firefighters and other emergency personnel.

Yellow Hard Hats

Yellow hard hats can be worn by a variety of workers including labourers, landscapers and heavy equipment operators. There is no special designation for yellow hard hats. This is often one of the most common colours that people without knowledge of the hard hat colour codes associate with this piece of equipment.

Gray Hard Hats

Gray hard hats are usually handed out to visitors to construction or other worksites, so that other workers can easily identify them.

Blue Hard Hats

Blue is a colour frequently associated with medicine. Blue hard hats are often worn by medical workers as well as electricians and carpenters.

Brown Hard Hats

Brown hard hats can indicate that the worker uses high heat in their work, and welders and similar workers often wear this colour of hard hat.

Pink Hard Hats

The colour pink is also very noticeable. Pink hard hats were at one time handed out to workers who forgot or lost their hard hats. Everyone on the worksite would immediately recognize their error. Today, however, the pink hard hat is also used by workers whose hard hats have been broken and must be repaired or replaced.

In Conclusion

While there are laws that mandate the use of hard hats by individual workers for safety reasons, there are no laws that require specific colours. Colour codes may vary by country, and even by organization or company — these links between certain colour hats and certain occupations or roles on the worksite aren't set in stone. However, these general guidelines are followed by most, and they can be a helpful way to navigate a busy worksite or workplace.