FAQ: Helmets for rope access

One issue that crops up regularly on our courses is helmets – techs are confused over which is the correct EN standard for helmets, how they differ from standard site helmets, and whether mountaineering helmets can be used at work. While the short answer is simple – just use a Petzl Vertex or Alveo ‘Best’, it can be a tricky one to explain to enthusiastic safety officers on site, so we thought we’d add some info for folks to refer back to.

Which is the correct EN standard for work at height helmets?

Unlike most of our equipment nowadays, currently there is no standard for specialist helmets for rope access.

Why can’t I just use a standard site helmet?

The standard for normal site helmets is EN 397 ‘Industrial Safety Helmets’. Unfortunately for our purposes this standard has a few problems. Firstly, EN 397 actually requires that any chinstrap must release at a fairly low load – the opposite of what we want to happen in a fall. Secondly, the impact tests required by EN 397 are pretty tame, with the test loads dropping from the height of one metre, and the helmets are only tested on the centre of their shell (this is the reason many cheap site helmets have a moulded central ridge. Get hit on the side and you’re likely knackered!). The standard also requires the shell is continuous to provide electrical insulation and (optionally) protection against molten metal splash – so no ventilation holes. Beware especially Petzl ‘ST’ helmets which look like typical rope access lids, but conform fully to EN 397’s weak chinstrap requirements, making them unsuitable for work at height.

What about climbing hemets?

The EN standard for mountaineering helmets – En 12492 – actually answers a lot of our problems. It requires a chinstrap that will keep the helmet on our head during a fall (but will release before strangling you), and impact tests from greater heights (2m), and on more places on the shell, including on the sides. However most mountaineering helmets have ventilation holes which means they cannot provide electrical insulation. Thankfully Petzl produce a couple of helmets – the ‘Best’ versions of which combine the most useful elements of each standard, making it an ideal helmet for rope access although no longer fully compliant to either standard.
Many mountaineering helmets nowadays are also more like a cycling helmet – more foam than shell – making them less durable and more suitable for protecting your head in a fall rather than against falling objects. Most of the time that shouldn’t be the priority at work, but its up to you to do a risk assessment and determine which is going to be most suitable for the task in hand.

I’ve got an old Petzl Ecrin Best that’s really comfortable. Can I still use it?

The old Ecrin Best was much loved by many, especially when Petzl replaced it with the wobbly and not very comfortable Vertex. Petzl’s lifespan advice for helmets is a maximum of ten years – and if its been used daily, out in the sun, it should probably be retired well before. Used solely indoors you might justify stretching a couple more years, but realistically most of the helmets are now on their last legs. Thankfully Petzl’s latest helmet – the Alveo – is a big improvement on the Vertex, being lighter, lower profile and much more stable on the head. Well worth a look.

Adam Long