Evolution of the Met Guard

Advanced foam technology is being used in integrated metatarsal guards that are raising the bar on impact protection.

Protective footwear is nothing new for the millions of Americans working in potentially hazardous environments. For decades now, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's 1910.136(a) regulation has set requirements for employers surrounding protective footwear that shields employees from potential dangers, including falling objects, piercing objects, and electric shock.

Due to the requirements that OSHA sets forth, the technology used to protect the feet of millions of men and women remained relatively unchanged for decades. Conventional wisdom suggests that hard materials are the superior method for protection. This is seen in almost every industry that manufactures body protection wear: hockey, American football, action/extreme sports, tactical wear, and soccer. Therefore, hard, rigid materials such as metal have been the standard in the footwear protection industry.

In footwear protection, the area of the foot that is the most susceptible to injury is clearly on the top, and as a result, footwear manufacturers have focused on developing protective footwear to mitigate injury to the toes and metatarsal areas. For toe protection, the answer has been developing heavy-duty boots with steel toe boxes--an integrated approach in which the metal is worked into the design of the boot. For the metatarsal region, common practice has been taking this same rigid approach, but by applying the protective "box," or met guard, that arches over the foot from side to side and is affixed to the boot as an accessory. Being an accessory, this means workers have had to put the met guard on before entering hazard areas.

In 2005, the industry was changed with the introduction of the first integrated met guard. For the first time, workers were offered the same, seamless solution for toe protection with met guards built into the design of a boot. This meant that, from the moment the boots were laced, their feet were fully protected, without having to add a fixture. Clearly, this evolution caught on within the industry. There are now many leading workwear boot manufacturers that are providing integrated met guards in numerous styles.

Leading this shift in the market was Thorogood, a brand managed by Wisconsin-based manufacturer Weinbrenner Shoe Company and with a storied history within the footwear industry, specifically the work boot category. It has been providing protective footwear for more than a century. When launched in 2005, the I-MET™ was the first internal metatarsal guard that was completely integrated with the steel toe cap and built into the design of the shoe to create seamless, almost hidden, protection.

Consumers quickly realized the benefits of having this met protection integrated into their work boots as opposed to a cumbersome, external attachment. It eliminated trip hazards that were common with some external designs, and the seamless designs provided a more aesthetically pleasing shoe that can be worn on and off the job.

Since 2005, other material companies have worked with work boot manufacturers to create integrated met guards that are raising the bar on impact protection. Longtime foam manufacturer Rogers Corp. in 2009 launched its own integrated met guard called the M-Guard. An internal, flexible piece of padding that is fully integrated with the protective toe cap, XRD's M-Guard provides lightweight protection and available in two styles to meet ASTM or EN Metatarsal Guard Standards. The key is its open cell, breathable foam that allows for wearable protection that is soft at rest but momentarily hardens, or "freezes," to provide a protective shield when the material experiences a sudden and/or extreme impact. The soft, conforming foam absorbs up to 90 percent of energy at high-speed impact. Additionally, it can withstand repeated impact for the life of the boot and features built-in antimicrobial protection to fight against the growth of odor-causing bacteria, mold, and mildew that can cause stains, odor, and product deterioration.

"Integrated met guard systems are like having an airbag in your car – you may not always need it, but you sure are glad it's there when something goes wrong," said Brandon Barker, Justin's Original Workboots (JOW) brand manager. He said JOW is committed to providing customers with a premium product, and it partnered with XRD to design JOW's first boots with integrated met guard protection. The product launched in 2012 with just two styles, but the brand has seen such consumer demand for integrated met guard boots that JOW launched four more styles this year and have plans to continue expanding in 2015. Leading these new launches is a square-toe styled work boot aimed at the oil and gas industry and their first women's styles.

Bob McAllister, national sales manager for JOW, noted that the benefit of selling a work booth with a "hidden" met guard has opened the door for a whole range of new customers. Employees who may not have been required to wear a met guard are now turning to these more streamlined designs and eliminating the need to ever worry about being protected on the job, he said.

London-based D3O is another company pairing advanced foam technology protective footwear. The company makes a range of met guards designed for internal applications that are temperature stable, waterproof, washable, and lightweight. The science behind its met guard is similar--the molecules in the polymer-based foam flow freely in an undisturbed state but lock together and disperse energy when under sudden shock.

OSHA's 1910.136(a) standard requires certain employees to wear protective footwear in hazardous environments. It has been in place for decades. The protective footwear industry's met guards had remained fairly stagnant, but now it's safe to say metatarsal protection has been forever changed.

As Bob Hogan noted in his protective footwear article published in the September 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety, the 2010 Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illness cited more than 49,000 injuries to the foot/toe for a rate of 4.9 per 100,000 full time workers. At 49,000 injuries per year, with many examples of fully integrated, internal met guards being available, the question is no longer what are the requirements for protection, but why aren't all employees working in hazardous environments required to wear work boots with integrated met guard systems?

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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