Segment from Tools of the Trade

The Hardest Part

Wells Bullard of the E.D. Bullard Co. tells Brian about her great-grandfather’s transformative idea for making worksites safer — 50 years before comprehensive legislation on occupational health and safety.

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BRIAN BALOGH: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about the history of a few of the key objects that define American work. Now, if you’ve ever worked a job that required you to wear head protection, you may have heard of a company called Bullard.

It was founded in 1898 by one Edward Dickinson Bullard. But it was Edward Wheatley Bullard, the son, who gets the credit for the company’s big innovation. We wanted to find out a little more about that innovation, so we put in a call to one of the company’s vice presidents, Wells Bullard.

WELLS BULLARD: And I’m the fifth generation of Bullards, the first non-Edward. But it’s the fifth generation of–

BRIAN BALOGH: Is Wells short for Edwina?

WELLS BULLARD: No, it’s Victoria Kingwell Bullard. So it’s from Kingwell.

BRIAN BALOGH: Wells’ great-great-grandfather had created the company to make equipment for miners in California. But when Edward the younger had his big idea, he was many thousands of miles away, in Europe.

WELLS BULLARD: He’d actually been serving in World War I. He was in the cavalry in France. And when he was in the trenches, he was wearing a metal, what they call a doughboy helmet. And so when he came back from the war, he wanted to work with his father at the family business. And he kind of came up with this idea that people in the trenches– in the war, he was protected better than the miners were being protected in the gold and silver mines.

BRIAN BALOGH: So what were the miners– they were not wearing any kind of hard hat?

WELLS BULLARD: They were wearing basically soft canvas caps at that time. They were wearing that that basically just kept debris off their faces.

BRIAN BALOGH: How did that work out?

WELLS BULLARD: I don’t think super well, necessarily. So my great-grandfather, he realized that the hazards that he’d been facing in the trenches were very similar to what the gold and silver miners were facing in the mines. But the metal helmets were obviously quite expensive, the doughboy helmets.

So he came up with a way of essentially taking two canvas caps and putting them set the brims around the outside. And he came up with this process that was called hard boiling, kind of like an egg.

So he hard boiled the caps. And he shellacked them with paint and he actually put a leather brim on them and a little bit of a suspension inside. And that was the first modern-day hard hat.

BRIAN BALOGH: That is so cool. So did that take off among miners?

WELLS BULLARD: Yes, miners started to wear those hard boiled hard hats, starting in 1919.

BRIAN BALOGH: When did what we would call a hard hat– that’s those guys on building sites– begin wearing the hard hat? Did they start wearing your great-grandfather’s hard hat right away?

WELLS BULLARD: So the first construction site that actually required the use of hard hats wasn’t until the Golden Gate Bridge, the construction of which started in 1933. At that time, I believe the statistic is that for every million dollars of the bridge project, there was normally a death, a human fatality.

Joseph D. Strauss was the chief engineer on the bridge, which was a $40 million project. And he did not like the idea of 40 people dying in order to cross the bay with the bridge. And so he implemented lots of safety measures. And one of the ones was he put a safety net actually under the bridge to help in the case of any worker fall, that they would not fall into the bay, that they would fall into the safety net.

And then he worked closely with my great-grandfather, who actually changed the hard hat a little bit in order to better protect workers against falling rivets, because there were lots of rivets on the bridge and those would hurt quite a bit if they hit your head.

BRIAN BALOGH: Yeah, I’ll bet. So with this very high profile project, did the hard hat take off to all construction sites?

WELLS BULLARD: No. It really didn’t. In terms of all construction sites using hard hats, that really didn’t go into effect until the Occupational Safety and Health Act was enacted in–

BRIAN BALOGH: That’s OSHA, right?

WELLS BULLARD: That’s OSHA, yes. OSHA was enacted in 1970, which then required hard hats at various work sites.

BRIAN BALOGH: Obviously, the post-World War II economic boom led to massive construction projects. You mean to tell me that folks were working without hard hats for all that time?

WELLS BULLARD: Well, I wouldn’t say that all folks were working without hard hats, but they were not required.

BRIAN BALOGH: Right. How did that affect your company when OSHA began to require these hard hats?

WELLS BULLARD: When OSHA began to require hard hats on those work sites, obviously that was good for us with regard to more demand for our product after 1970. But there was also then additional competition, because it opened up quite a desirable market for other competitors.

BRIAN BALOGH: Did you lobby for that regulation?

WELLS BULLARD: Not that I know of, no.


WELLS BULLARD: One of the things about Bullard is– pardon?


WELLS BULLARD: I don’t know. I don’t know.

BRIAN BALOGH: All right. You ask your Dad whether there might have been quiet lobbying, perhaps, for this requirement when OSHA was passed.

WELLS BULLARD: I will. But one of the things that I’m probably most proud of about Bullard is the fact that we’ve been making safety equipment before, way before, it was required on work sites, because it’s just the right thing– protecting work areas and getting them home safely to their families and loved ones.


BRIAN BALOGH: Wells Bullard is vice president for marketing and product development at the E.D. Bullard Company, which is now based in Cynthiana, Kentucky.