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A tribute to the Hard Hat ~ 100 years young

by Larry Bernstein

While some inventions draw “oohs” and “ahhs” and are duly noted, some things seem to have always existed. Their regular usage is necessary and appreciated yet their existence is often taken for granted. One such item is the hard hat. Believe it or not, the hard hat didn’t always exist. In fact, 2019 marks its 100th year of existence. Who created this item? That would be Bullard. The company continues to this day and is a leading manufacturer of high-quality personal protective equipment including thermal imagers, hard hats, firefighter and rescue helmets, supplied air respirators, powered air-purifying respirators and air quality equipment.

Company history

Bullard — which has 300 employees, customers worldwide and products made in Kentucky — was founded in San Francisco in 1898 by Edward Dickinson Bullard. He began as a distributor of carbide lamps and other mining equipment to gold and copper miners in California, Nevada and Arizona. He learned of their needs by literally going into the mines and seeing the challenges they were facing.

The company is in its fifth generation of being run by a Bullard. The current CEO is Wells Bullard, the great-great granddaughter of the company founder. Wells, who “feels very proud of the legacy that came before me,” notes that reaching a fifth generation is no small feat. 

While reaching such a milestone is a testament to effort and planning, the key to Bullard’s success from the beginning has been listening to the customers and responding to their needs. “We have been constantly evolving and transforming and are responsive to the changing needs of our customers,” said Bullard.  “We listen and watch our end users as they do their work and identify problems they face — whether they articulate them or not.” 

The Hard-Boiled® Hat 

This policy started with the founders and continued with the next generation who founded the Hard-Boiled® Hat and now Bullard said, “it’s part of the company’s DNA.”

The Hard-Boiled® Hat was created by the founder’s son, E.W. who served in World War I.  It became the mining industry’s first head protection device. E.W. came up with the idea of the hard hat by combining his understanding of customer needs and his experience with his doughboy army helmet. 

It got the name “hard boiled” because of the process it went through to be made. A canvas hat and leather were steamed. Then, a leather brim was added and the entire hat was shellacked with black paint. It included elementary suspension, cotton straps and cotton strings. 

The hard hat was a major upgrade in safety for minors. Previously, they wore canvas baseball hats, which kept debris and dust off their head and face but did not absorb impact. 

The hard hat grew in popularity in the 1930’s when the Golden Gate Bridge was being constructed. The bridge engineer sought out Bullard and requested they adapt the hard hats to protect bridge workers. The company did so and Bullard engineers modified the hat to include an original supplied air respirator for workers responsible for blasting the steelwork prior to painting.

The company continues to apply changes to the ever-evolving hard hat. Bullard said, “We are always working to develop and deliver innovative solutions to solve our customers’ unique problems.” One recent change was co-developed with an oil and gas end user.  While a brim helps keeps the wearer’s face protected, it means the wearer has to tilt his/her head back to see up. This leaves the wearer’s face exposed. So, Bullard created and recently launched the AboveView® hard hat with a clear brim which is also removable and replaceable. This way the wearer can see above head hazards, which are coming at him/her without exposing his/her face.

The only way a hard hat can be effective is if it’s actually worn. This is something Wells and the Bullard company consider often. They want people to wear their hard hats, “We design the hard hat while keeping in mind comfort, stability and ease of use,” says Wells. “The hard hat is also aesthetically pleasing and often includes customized printing of the company name and logo so employees can proudly show off their employer.” Another way Bullard ensures their hats are worn is by designing them to stay on the wearers’ head when they bend over.

Family owned

As noted above, Bullard is family owned. That family feeling, however, trickles down to the employees as well. There are generations of employees at the factory, and they are made to feel part of the Bullard family. “They are listened to and heard and driven to act with integrity,” says Wells.

It’s her strong belief that what Bullard employees do on a daily basis matters as they have a direct impact on safety. “Our employees enable someone to go home safely at the end of the day to be with their families.” 

That responsibility and vision drive Bullard in their quest to advance human safety. The goal is not only to protect people from hazards but to help them avoid hazards altogether. This great concern for employees was not the standard during the early days of Bullard’s existence. While OSHA was not signed into law till the early 70’s, Bullard was bullish on safety long before it was required by the government. “Through the great depression, there was a disposable worker approach,” says Wells. “Those employers who believed in their workers and cared about their safety quickly became fans of the Hard-Boiled® Hat.”

Being family owned has other benefits. It enables the company to think long term and not be tied to quarterly reporting. This leads to decisions that may be unorthodox in the short term, but the benefits become clear in the long term. “The stakeholders we are accountable to understand what we are doing and are intimately involved in the business,” says Wells. This sort of thinking contributes to Bullard’s ability to continually innovate.

Customers choose Bullard because they care about protecting their workers and their products provide employees peace of mind. They’re confident they are receiving a quality product, which will protect their employees. It’s a responsibility that the Bullard company and family take seriously. They have and continue to walk a mile in their customers’ shoes so those who use Bullard products can feel that safety matters and has been greatly considered.


Year long celebration

Bullard is planning a variety of activities throughout this year in celebration of the hard hat’s anniversary. One of the first on their agenda was to establish a world’s record for the largest gathering of people wearing hard hats at a sporting event.

On Saturday, Jan. 12, the company accomplished this goal during halftime of the U Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt men’s basketball game. Bullard supplied attendees with 10,000 hard hats, which had to be worn while seated for five minutes to accomplish the record. During that time, Guinness Book spotters were able to confirm the record was set — and U Kentucky proceeded to win the game 56-47.


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