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How Slip-Resistant Shoes Can Put Money in Your Company's Pocket

Many shoes labeled as "slip resistant" often are not effective enough for chefs, nurses, and other professionals who are exposed to hazardous floors.

Would Cinderella have tripped and lost that slipper if she'd been wearing slip-resistant shoes? We'll never know, but it's a question worth asking. Slips, trips and falls (STFs) are the most common cause of workplace injury, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all reported major injuries. The National Safety Council estimates more than $70 billion is spent annually for worker's compensation and medical costs linked to falls that occur at work. And when it comes to accidental deaths, only motor vehicle accidents outrank STFs.

For those of us operating in a world of coffee spills, uneven floors, aged mats, sloped surfaces, and floors slick from grease, rain, snow, or overspray from machines, the good news is that many STFs are preventable, especially through the use of proper slip resistance footwear. Slip-resistant shoes can help companies reduce worker’s compensation claims, eliminate workdays lost due to injury, and retain employee productivity. For those unfamiliar with slip resistance shoes, this article will help you better understand why they're vital in high-STF environments, as well as what to look for when shopping for the right shoe.

Slip Sliding Away: Where and How STFs Occur
Let's look at the industry most prone to slip and falls: health care. According to a 2009 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the health care industry has a higher slip and fall percentage for its workers then all other private industries combined. In fact, slip and fall injuries account for a whopping 25 percent of lost-workday injuries for health care workers. Worse, a slip or fall often results in a more serious injury, requiring additional time off work and/or a decreased ability on the part of the injured employee to perform his or her job at the same level as before.

What's the reason behind so many slips and falls? Environment plays a huge role. Consider the myriad of powders, fluids, vials, and cleaning solutions that pass through a hospital's corridors in a single day. Contaminants may range from floor cleaning supplies to fluids, talcum powders to decontamination sprays, all contributing to slick spots on floors. In addition, hospitals are filled with changes in floor levels (think patient ramps) and surface changes, such as abrupt transitions from pavement to linoleum to carpet, etc.

Add in the fact that health care workers often experience a blocked or limited line of vision while transporting patients or equipment, and it's no surprise how often STFs take place.

Of course, health care workers aren't the only ones at risk. While STFs can and do occur anywhere, the fast food, grocery store, hospitality, manufacturing, and restaurant markets are also highly prone to slip-related injuries. Workers in all of these industries are exposed to water, grease, clutter, and transitioning from one type of floor to another. Restaurant workers carry heavy trays piled high with food in dimly lit environments. Grocery store clerks may work on polished or freshly waxed floors. Manufacturing employees face electrical cords and cables or dry floors with wood dust or powder, and/or slick metal surfaces such as dock plates. With the opportunity for a fall around every corner (did we mention corners are prime locations for STFs to occur?), what can be done to combat the risk?

You wouldn't drive a car without wearing a seat belt, use a chainsaw without donning safety goggles, or ride an upside-down roller coaster without buckling into a shoulder harness. So why would you -- or the employees for whom you're responsible -- walk on a wet, greasy, or slick surface without the proper footwear to maximize safety? It's an unnecessary and expensive risk in which far too many companies indulge.

As mentioned earlier, health care, wholesale, and retail environments experience the highest rates of non-fatal SFT injuries. Slip-resistant shoes should be a standard component of any slip and fall prevention program in these and other industries. According to a 2001 American National Standards Institute report, "slip resistant shoes will help to minimize the risk of slipping" in these environments.

So what causes a fall? Generally, it's a lack of friction, or grip, between an employee’s shoe and the surface upon which he's walking. A Coefficient of Friction (COF) of .40 or higher is recommended by many employers. You might think that the more friction, the safer the walkway, but this isn't always true. While groups often recommend a higher COF for surfaces and ramps, too much friction can result in the same slip and falls, just as too little can.

Besides, most of us have little control over the COF level of the floors on which we tread. What we can control, however, is the shoes we use to maneuver our daily paths and walkways. Slip-resistant shoes are a key factor in minimizing the 15 percent of STF injuries that keep people home from work each year.

What to Look For in a Slip-Resistant Shoe
We've established that having the right amount of friction is the key to a safe walking environment. We've also established that while we can't control our surface environments, we can control what we walk on them with. The next step, then, is finding a slip-resistant shoe.

Often, employees must determine the appropriate slip-resistant shoe for their work environment. This is challenging because many shoes labeled as "slip resistant" often are not effective enough for chefs, nurses, and other professionals who are exposed to hazardous floors.

Ideally, you'll want to investigate any claim made by a company as to the COF of its shoes and what testing has been done before buying or recommending a shoe. This type of research requires more work up front but pays off in the long run when you consider money saved in worker's compensation claims and lost workdays and productivity.

In general, here are a few things to consider when selecting slip-resistant shoes:

  • Sizing and fit. Take the time to find the right shoe that fits. Most people will not wear a shoe for long if it does not fit.
  • Insoles. An "insole" is the interior part of the shoe on which the foot rests. Insole technologies vary based on the style and purpose of the shoe. Look for extra cushioning and impact padding for workers who spend long hours on their feet or on hard surfaces.
  • Lining. Look for a mesh fabric lining to wick away moisture and keep feet cool and dry.
  • Uppers. The "upper" of a shoe is the material that covers the toes as well as the back, sides, and top of the foot. Uppers can be made of one or more of a variety of materials, including leather, action leather, man-made leather, suede, and mesh. Make sure to choose a shoe that has an upper that fits your activity level, as well as your work environment.
  • Midsole. This portion of the shoe is between the insole and outsole and provides foot support, cushioning, and stability. Improvements in midsole technology now allow for more cushion, greater arch support, and even ergonomic designs to decrease foot, leg, and back pain. This is especially important for anyone with flat feet or high arches.
  • Tread. The space and depth of tread on a shoe are an integral piece in the effectiveness of slip-resistant footwear. Beware of worn-down soles and soles that are flat or have a flat edge of the outsole. Instead, look for treads that allow more rubber to grip the floor. Treads with more 90-degree angles can help to reduce lateral slips.
  • Testing of outsoles. The most important aspect to slip resistance is the outsole compound. Generally, rubber compounds are most effective for slip resistance in oil and grease, but results can vary greatly just by slight changes in the rubber compound. The best rubber compounds disperse most oil and grease to the channels of the shoes, thus allowing the sole to reach the floor. Other outsole compounds may have difficulty dispersing oil and grease, and the result is lower slip resistance and lower COF ratings. To know which outsoles work best, it's very important to look at test results from independent labs.

Finally, it's important to remember that slip-resistant shoes, while beneficial, are not a magical cure for all workplace slips and falls. Slips and falls can occur even with the best shoes. As employers, however, it is incumbent on us to do all we can to minimize the risk of injury to our workers, and one of the simplest, most effective ways to do this is to require or encourage the use of proven, high-quality slip resistance shoes for employees in high-risk STF industries. The best slip-resistant shoes time and again at the largest employers have been proven to reduce injuries, worker's comp claims, and employee time off work.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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