Recipe for an Effective Program

Slips, trips, and loss of balance result in seven lost work days per employee, per incident. Prevent them by tuning up your employee safety footwear program.

IN today's workplace, safety managers make tough choices every day that affect lives and their companies' bottom lines. Hand, eye, hearing, and bodily protection are key to any successful safety program. Another critical, sometimes overlooked, element in preventing workplace injuries is foot protection.

Although foot protection is sometimes the last step in a safety manager's program because of budget constraints, it is gaining visibility for its ability to significantly reduce lost work days. On average, slips, trips, and loss of balance result in seven lost work days per employee, per incident. In addition, slips, trips, and falls place third in overall cost per claim by type of injury, according to the National Safety Council.

The occupational safety game plan starts with a thorough understanding of OSHA's regulation on foot protection, 29 CFR 1910.136. This standard incorporates the ANSI Z 41 protective footwear standard, which is published jointly by the National Safety Council and the American National Standards Institute.

Start with a Workplace Assessment
A safety manager should begin with a workplace hazard assessment. This should include a visual assessment of the work environment and interviews with employees to discuss their safety concerns. While analyzing potential hazards for a job application, there are several key issues to address, depending on the environment.

For example, when analyzing indoor work environments, consider all variables, such as lighting, flooring, or changing floor conditions because of moisture or spills. If employees are continually working in slippery conditions, lightweight footwear with outsoles offering superior slip resistance is the solution.

In outdoor or heavy-industrial applications, look for rough terrain with hazards such as nails or glass that might puncture the sole of a boot, or the potential for impacts to the toe or leg by rolling or falling objects. Footwear that features either an ANSI-approved steel toe or midsole and/or metatarsal guard will protect against such hazards.

If electric shock is a potential hazard, static dissipative and electrical hazard footwear is required by ANSI.

Just as certain hazards demand specific safety features, the work environment will dictate the outsole required to get the job done. Wet, slippery surfaces require an outsole that is soft, with a fine pattern that will grip the floor. A large, dense lug outsole, on the other hand, performs better in wet, muddy conditions.

Outsoles alone offer protective capabilities by preventing injury and providing insulation. They are a primary defense against slips and falls. As a result, outsoles have recently gained more attention for that reason. Footwear manufacturers continue to innovate new outsoles for unique applications, such as retractable, carbide-tipped studs that grip snow or ice and retract back into the sole on dry surfaces.

The recent development of hybrid outsoles, for example, has made certain varieties of protective footwear more versatile and durable. Dual-density outsoles utilize a combination of two compounds in the outsole. A soft compound offers superior surface grip and comfort while a denser, thick compound provides for longer wear.

Now that the environment is assessed and you have determined which footwear features are critical to your employee's safety, there are several categories of footwear to choose from.

Footwear Categories

  • Leather: Leather footwear is one of the most common styles of footwear found in the workplace. Because it can be stitched together and stretched over a last, leather is one of the best fitting, most comfortable types of occupational footwear in industry today. Leather also can be treated to be 100 percent waterproof and oil-resistant, making it suitable for a wide variety of work environments.
  • Rubber: Rubber is widely utilized for its flexibility, resistance to water, and abrasion resistance. Rubber footwear manufacturers utilize different formulas and construction methods that differentiate one from another in quality. Look for rubber that offers ozone-resistance and superior tensile strength for durability. Rubber is also versatile enough, if it is a quality product, to be used in cold-weather applications due to its flexibility.
  • PVC: Poly Vinyl Chloride has been popularized because of its light weight and durability, as well as its cost-effective price. In addition, PVC is resistant to a wide variety of low-grade industrial chemicals, making it great for a variety of industries or applications.
  • Polyurethane: The next level of injection-molded footwear is made of polyurethane, which is known well for being lightweight, heavy duty, and highly chemically resistant. Injected-molded polyurethane can be up to 50 percent lighter than standard PVC and offers unique features such as cold flexibility, insulation properties, and superior abrasion resistance.

Quality, Features & Benefits
Before you are ready to select the footwear you will recommend to employees, consider that poor-quality footwear can affect your safety program in more ways than one. Fewer protective footwear failures will result in fewer accidents and lost work days.

Quality footwear also can improve job performance by preventing the onset of foot fatigue, a situation in which accidents are more likely to occur. If matched with the right work application, superior footwear can and should provide all-day comfort for those who are required to be on their feet for the duration of their shift.

To make footwear as comfortable as possible, look for steel or fiberglass shanks for arch support, comfort linings and insoles, ankle fit in rubber, as well as easy-to-use hardware. Simple features such as a kick-off lugs for boot removal or a 90-degree deep-heel for climbing ladders are great add-ons employees will notice.

In addition, the type of socks worn in conjunction with the proper footwear can play an important role in foot hygiene and contribute directly to the overall performance of the footwear. Footwear linings are now available with anti-bacterial treatments that reduce exposure to bacteria and accumulation of moisture.

Now, it is time to find a source. Where do you begin? Look to safety suppliers and manufacturers with experience.

Consider the following key criteria when selecting a footwear source:

  • Does the vendor carry enough inventory, offer a selection of products, and deliver to the work site within a reasonable amount of time?
  • Are the employees of the selected vendor professionally trained in how to fit safety work shoes or boots, and will they assist your employees when selecting footwear?
  • Does the vendor maintain accurate purchasing records for each of your employees--such as when the product was purchased or how the cost was shared between employer and employee?
  • What is the supplier's return policy? If there is a return policy, it should be well defined when the program is initiated, to eliminate any problems.
  • Does the supplier carry multiple brands, as well as different types of footwear for all applications in your facility? Do they carry leather, PVC, rubber, polyurethane, and any other styles needed?
  • Do your supplier's products meet ANSI safety standards?
  • Finally, monitor your safety program, including how successful you've been in choosing the right footwear for the right environment. After implementation, query employees regarding your footwear choices.

If you're successful, you'll see fewer accidents and happier, more productive employees.

This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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