How new helmet technology can better protect workers from concussion

A new generation of helmets promises better protection against workplace concussions, also known as mild traumatic brain injuries.

These helmets include technology that not only protects the head from direct impact, but also from glancing impact, which causes the head to spin suddenly—a major cause of concussions.

“The human brain is easily injured by rotational force,” says Michael Botlang, director of the Legacy Biomechanics Lab in Portland, Oregon. For example, he says, a boxer will “drop like a fly” from a blow to the chin that causes the head to spin rapidly.

So Botlang and Dr. Steven Maddy, an orthopedic surgeon in Portland, developed a helmet designed to absorb the force of rotation. It is manufactured and sold by WaveCel, a company the two men founded to produce safer bicycle helmets.

The WaveCel helmet is just the latest effort to update the products known as industrial safety helmets, which brain injury experts say is overdue for an upgrade.

“Unfortunately, today’s most commonly used helmets look identical to those from the 1960s,” says Botlang.

MIPS, a Swedish company, offers competing technology to protect the worker’s brain from sudden rotation.

Modernized helmets like these “keep the brain more immobile, and that has a lot of potential benefits,” says Dr. Brandon Luck-Wald, a neurosurgeon at the University of Florida who has no ties to the helmet industry.

Understanding workplace turmoil

About a quarter of all concussions among adults occur at work, especially on construction sites. Falls, which often cause a sudden twist or tilt of the head, are the most common cause.

One reason workplace brain injuries are so common is that helmets—unlike sports helmets—haven’t changed much since their invention a century ago.

Lucke-Wold, who often treats brain injury patients, wears a modern bicycle helmet during his daily commute.

“But the construction workers I saw cycling home today were wearing helmets that look a lot like what I saw 10 to 15 years ago,” he says.

A typical helmet consists of a plastic outer shell with an internal suspension system made of straps. Some models include foam padding on the sides and a chin strap.

This design is good for protecting the brain from a direct impact, say a hammer dropped by a worker two floors up. But traditional helmets aren’t as good when the impact comes at an angle.

The new WaveCel helmets are designed with special padding that better cushions the brain against side impact and rotational forces.

Studies show that this is because a slanted impact can cause the helmet and the head inside it to turn suddenly and violently. And more and more research shows that the brain is highly vulnerable to this kind of rotational force.

The reason is that the brain is a bit like an egg – a soft capsule surrounded by fluid and contained within a hard shell.

You can shake an egg vigorously without disturbing the contents. But experiments show that if you twist one hard enough, the yoke inside will break even though the shell remains intact.

Most helmets act like an eggshell.

“They do a force-reducing job, so they serve a purpose,” Madey says. “But if they’re not optimized to reduce rotation, they’re not optimized to prevent injury.”

A helmet that works like sand

Madey and Bottlang originally founded WaveCel to make better sports helmets.

Their inspiration came from observing what happens to a ball when it hits the ground at an angle, as often happens to a motorcyclist’s head in a crash.

The ball doesn’t just bounce, Maddy says. “It’s going to hit the ground, there’s going to be friction and it’s going to create spin.”

Unless the ground is sand.

“If you throw a ball into a sandpit, the sand gives way underneath, it doesn’t give the ball spin,” says Maddy. And the ball doesn’t bounce.

So Madey and Botlang developed a helmet liner made of a special plastic honeycomb designed to act like sand.

“The honeycomb structure is a very light, breathable material that is not only good at absorbing linear force, but it also breaks from rolling the way sand would,” Maddy says.

WaveCel padding can be found in several major brand sports helmets.

An independent study found that bike helmets with WaveCel or MIPS technology were better than conventional helmets at reducing rotational force. A study led by Bottlang and Madey found that WaveCel outperformed MIPS for the type of head impacts caused by falls.

One potential barrier to widespread adoption of the new helmets is cost.

WaveCel helmets cost $169 to $189, which is several times more than a standard helmet and more than many premium models, including some with MIPS technology.

“If I have one goal in the next few years, it’s to bring the price down,” Botlang says.

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