Overshoes Make the Grade

Toe protection overshoes make headlines with new materials and designs.

LONG considered the "ugly duckling" of the safety footwear business, the safety toe overshoe developed from the venerable galosh has a new lease on life. To be fair, there have been some pretty ugly ones, and even some that were downright dangerous. However, the "gumshoe" has come a long way since African-American inventor Alvin Longo Rickman first patented an overshoe in 1898. During the past 109 years, improvements have been made that appear to ensure his legacy and bear testament to his ingenuity. Today, toe protection products have a pride of place within the PPE industry that would surely have pleased the man.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a gap in knowledge between what exists and what is acceptable with respect to the occasions when a safety boot is recommended and when only toe protection is necessary. Under OSHA and CSA, the rules governing "safety footwear" dictate minimum toe protection standards through ASTM 2413-05, which replaced the ANSI Z41 standard, and the CAN/CSA Z195-02. That these rules apply to "safety footwear" has made orphans of toe protection products, because none of them is considered "safety footwear" by the testing bodies. Their definition of "safety footwear" precludes them from assigning anything but "qualified" test results. But have no fear--where the rubber meets the road, you won't be found lacking if only a safety toe protector will do the job. With the advent of new materials, production methods, and--dare I mention it--litigation, galosh-type overshoes are getting some well-deserved attention. In spite of abject avoidance by standards bodies in the United States and Canada, it's a given today that safety toe overshoes can provide toe protection to the minimum standards required.

It was Charles Goodyear's work on vulcanizing rubber (1844) that has facilitated the biggest contribution yet for toe protection. He found a way of making rubber stable in both hot and cold conditions, allowing vulcanized rubber to be one of the mainstays of safety footwear. Since then, advancements in vulcanizing rubber have allowed us to harness rubber's tactile qualities, which are much sought after for slip prevention.

Prior to inserting a steel toe cap into a rubber "galosh," toe protection could be provided only by using safety boots or a perforated steel toe cap with straps and buckles. PVC materials, while they have many benefits, do not have the same slip-resistant qualities and are susceptible to change in hot and cold conditions.

Goodyear's invention ultimately led to the creation of rubber overshoes with steel toe caps. These became suitable alternatives to perforated safety toe caps, which have some safety negatives because of loose fittings and external metal buckles. Apart from "ease of use," other safety benefits emerged from the marriage. One major advantage became obvious with the absence of the "clacking" noise that sometimes resembled a flock of geese during visitations on concrete floors.

Pointers when evaluating steel toe overshoes:
1. Are the overshoes made of rubber or PVC?
2. Do they comply with minimum toe protection standards?
3. Are there other safety features associated with the overshoe?
4. Are they sturdy and resistant to wear, tears, and cuts?
5. Will the overshoe be a good fit and easy to slip on and off?
6. Are heel types and outer shoe styles to be considered?
7. Will users embrace and use them?
8. What tests have been conducted, and how favorable are they?
9. Can they be easily sanitized on a regular basis?
10. Are they cost effective for your application?

Zones Where Toe Protection is Warranted
Safety professionals and employers are required to assess risks and provide personal protective equipment where necessary. In the absence of formal approval of PPE items such as the Canadian Standards Association patch or an ANSI tag, it is considered prudent to provide protection nevertheless, so long as it is considered adequate. This is true especially in situations where a safety boot or shoe is not available or economical.

Office staffers entering "safety zones" and temporary workers are typical situations where it would be deemed prudent to provide the minimum toe protection. Further, employees who work in "safety zones" but are mostly seated at conveyor systems may not require the burden or cost of a full safety boot.

Common to all jurisdictions, it is the ability of the steel toe cap in the overshoe, or toe protector accessory, to withstand impact and compression beyond the minimum requirements that convey compliance with OSHA and CSA guidelines. Today, enlightened safety footwear buyers are "seeing through" the gap between products that have been approved as "safety footwear" and those that will satisfy their professional duty but have no formal certification. Some perceive this as the politics of protectionism within the North American footwear industry that is a barrier to greater awareness and improved safety.

The European scenario is different. In that region, the CE certification body, SATRA, decided to champion a groundbreaking initiative. While there was no formal directive governing steel toe overshoes, SATRA reviewed the benefits in such a favorable light that it created a unique category. In its view, occasional toe protection products had been overlooked for too long; SATRA saw a need for the establishment of minimum standards and a formal certification process. This was implemented in 2006 with the SATRA document M21:2006. Now, toe protection manufacturers can have their products tested beyond the essentials of impact and compression. Tests can be conducted for resistance to slip, acid, oil and animal fats, abrasion, tearing, and flexibility.

Due Diligence Required
Admittedly, there have been concerns around steel toe caps; this is to be expected. The myths have been debunked, however. The TV show "MythBusters" proved toes will not be amputated in the event that safety toes are called into action. (See the show at www.tv.com/steel-toe-amputation/episode/541391/summary.html.) Nevertheless, in all matters of safety, due diligence is still required.

If toe protection is the sole consideration, any of the toe protectors on the market today will comply, provided that they meet or exceed 75 Joules of impact and compression. Toe injuries accounted for 1 percent of all days lost in the workplace during 2005. However, with slips and falls more frequent than actual direct hits on toes, there is often much more to consider. In many workplace settings, some surfaces are less slip resistant than others. This danger can be overcome with toe protectors that provide improved grip. Anti-slip soles are also quite common, with some unique designs. Certain situations underfoot must be compatible with the material of the overshoe. For example, will the overshoe perform well in cold settings, given than some brands are not designed for sub-zero conditions such as those found in the meatpacking industry?

Cost and Use Comparisons
While toe protector overshoes can never replace safety boots or shoes, their costs are often compared. In this instance, care must be taken to evaluate cost effectiveness. Industrial settings can be harsh, and footwear must be able to withstand harsh treatment. If the use is infrequent or if conditions underfoot are smooth, then safety toe protectors are inexpensive. If not, then you might find yourself replacing them on a regular basis, making them not so economical. Regardless, nobody wants to slip into safety footwear used by somebody else.

In all situations where items of a personal protective nature are recommended, willingness to wear and wearability need to be considered. For these to be effective, there must be few excuses not to wear; with ease of use, fit, stylish looks, and sturdiness being the most important factors.

As an example of the versatility and usefulness of galosh-type toe protectors, within the food safety community, the intrusion of bacteria and germs is a primary consideration. While a steel toe overshoe might well provide toe protection for visitors, any plant manager worth his salt appreciates how it might also afford some protection against contaminants being introduced to the production area, because the toe protection covers the whole of the outer shoe and self-contains the "gunk" brought in from outside. In the chicken farming sector, toe protection, comfort, and waterproofing are welcome, attractive attributes.

While these products are most commonly used by visitors to manufacturing facilities, their versatility is also taking them farther afield. For the home market, the refrain "don't mow without your 'toes'" speaks to the danger of lawn-mowing in running shoes, clogs, or open-toed sandals. (About 80,000 Americans are injured by lawn mowers each year, according to a study done by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.) Diabetics, too, are now discovering the joy and comfort of stylish toe protection.

There are four manufacturers of safety toe overshoes that are made of PVC or robber. Each of the brands has features and benefits clearly laid out in the companies' Web sites.

When toe protection is important, choose the product designed for this purpose.

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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