An Object Lesson in Protection

Workers and safety managers increasingly seek footwear that provides metatarsal protection. Safety toe is still on top in sales, however.

John Deere Boot, a licensed brand of Dan Post Boot Company, sells a lot of boots featuring steel or composite protection in the toe, and the accompanying photograph illustrates why they're popular. Its wearer, working at a John Deere manufacturing plant, had the misfortune of having a 1,300-pound section of a combine fall on his foot one day. The impact left a small mark on his boot and bruised his foot, but that was the extent of the damage. He did not miss a day of work because of the incident, said Dave Mitchell, vice president of product development for Clarksville, Tenn.-based Dan Post Boot Company.

The wearer of this John Deere boot had the misfortune of having a 1,300-pound section of a combine fall on his foot one day."Actually, [the boot] was just scuffed. That really makes us feel good, and it made the factory [managers] feel good, too, because they sent the photo along to corporate at John Deere," he said.

Falling/crushing objects are the number one hazard of concern for work boot customers. "They're required by their employer in most cases to wear safety toe," which accounts for about 50 percent of John Deere sales, Mitchell said. Most consumers also want their boots and shoes to be waterproof, and the companies sell a popular footwear line for underground miners. The boots feature a puncture-resistant sole, a flexible steel plate, that is required by the state of West Virginia for underground mining. West Virginia also requires metatarsal protection and safety toe in these boots.

A puncture-resistant steel plate in the sole and safety toe are required by Canadian standards, and some other U.S. states have similar requirements for miners' boots, Mitchell said. John Deere makes a lot of its mining boot sales to retailers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois, and in the West, including Wyoming. Most western mines are strip mines for which miners can wear non-puncture-resistant boots from the company, Mitchell said.

The line of mining footwear includes leather waterproof boots that are insulated, 12-inch boots, 16-inch boots, rubber 12-inch boots, and heavy-duty hip and chest waders used almost exclusively in underground mines.

How long do they last? "We had an e-mail last week from one of our consumers that had bought our John Deere boots, and he was just absolutely tickled that his boots had lasted longer than six months," Mitchell said. "It really is a harsh environment. They're down in all this water, and grit, and rock, coal, and oil, all of that. You should see some of the boots we get returned: They're just absolutely obliterated."

He said miners typically tuck their pants legs into the boots and duct tape the pants to their boot tops to stop abrasive material from falling into the boots. Footwear for workers in the oil industry -- both oilfield workers and oil rig workers -- also is popular. "We're having some great success down in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi," he said. "We're competing with a lot of old-time brands."

Metatarsal Protection Popular
Workers and safety managers increasingly seek footwear that provides metatarsal protection, said Mitchell; Sherry Weaver, director of marketing for Dan Post Boot Company; and Wayne Wilson, managing director for sales of John Deere and McRae Industrial Footwear, during a group interview.

"There's growth in metatarsals, in internal metatarsal protection. Insurance companies are requiring factories to have a metatarsal guard in the boots, so safety directors want it," Mitchell said. "It's increasing more all the time. We've watched it grow from something where you had to have just one boot in your line to handle that. Today, we have a distributor who sells out of Texas with a group of trucks that call on accounts such as factories. They have one truck they run daily that carries metatarsals only. Ten to 15 years ago, we would have had only one or two styles with metatarsal."

Weaver and Mitchell said dropping a heavy object on a steel- or composite-toe boot just once means that boot should be replaced -- especially a composite toe, because it will crack. "They pass the test, but they're not guaranteed to pass the test a second time," Mitchell explained. "Workers should know that."

The boot in the accompanying photograph withstood such an impact. "Looking at it, you really couldn't tell anything dramatic had happened to it," he said. "There's just a little scuff mark. We want to educate the wearers [about] when something traumatic like that happens to a boot, they really don't pass the test. They may pass the test, but we couldn't warrant it."

Because the visible damage is so slight, a safety director might not spot it and thus would not realize the boot had been affected if the worker fails to report it. "The incidents that the safety director knows about, he could require them to have another pair," said Mitchell.

Generally, the protective elements of a boot outlast the exterior of the boot. Tread design is part of a boot's or shoe's slip resistance, and if that tread is worn down, its slip resistance is lost. Safety toe and puncture resistance will last the life of the shoe, however, he and Weaver said.

"Safety directors are becoming more and more conscious of the need to control what the employee has on his feet, and it all comes back to insurance and liability. That's one of the reasons you're seeing more and more metatarsals, because it's just that extra protection over the metatarsal bones of your foot," Mitchell said.

"We're seeing more large factories have their own distribution points for footwear inside their factory," he added. Previously, managers would tell workers to go get a pair of safety-toe boots, and the employees could buy them anywhere they chose. "This way, they can go and work with a supplier like us or a retailer who calls on them. And they have basically analyzed the needs in their factory to know what particular kind of boots to wear," Mitchell said. "They know these specific boots are right for the conditions they have in their factory, if something should happen."

A New Line for Women
John Deere also offers ESD footwear and recently launched a new line of women's protective shoes styled like what women would wear off the job, Weaver said. Women's footwear comprises about 10 percent of sales, a percentage that has been consistent for years because most women who need safety-toe footwear are still opting to buy smaller men's sizes, they said.

But that habit may be changing. "We're trying to fill some specific needs down in Texas, where a lot of ladies are wearing these in factories or in offices," said Mitchell. "And when they go into the factory, they have to have on safety toe. So it's not heavy-duty work boots, but it is safety toe and maybe ESD."

They have just completed adding women's metatarsal footwear to their offerings after many people at a recent expo asked about it. Some visitors said they needed to equip as many as 300 to 400 women in their factories who are required to wear metatarsal protection. Until now, there was nothing in the John Deere product line to meet that need.

Asked whether they anticipate increasing sales of women's styles, Mitchell answered, "We hope so. We don't expect huge growth. We're trying to fill every need that we can fill as a company."

Dan Post Boot Company is a division of McRae Industries, which is based in North Carolina and is a contract military boot manufacturer and supplier that has been manufacturing boots since 1959. Dan Post Boot Company is now developing "Made in the USA" John Deere boots that will be made and finished in Mount Gilead, N.C., instead of China, where John Deere boots now are made. Mitchell said he hopes to have samples out to his sales force within a few months.

He said more and more requests come in for protective footwear that has been made in the United States. Some competitors, notably Red Wing, continue to make their footwear domestically, but material suppliers are scarce here, he said, noting only one provider of rubber soles is left in the United States, and tanneries and machines to fill a factory are increasingly hard to find domestically.

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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