Internal metatarsal guards offer coverage beyond the end of the safety toe cap to the top of the foot. (Justin Original Workboots photo)

Safety, Without Compromising Comfort

Research and innovation make safe and comfortable shoes attainable.

A long day's work varies depending on profession and industry, but one thing is certain: Employees who spend long hours on their feet are quickly demanding comfort as well as safety. Safety standards, mandated by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration are the rules companies and employees follow, and with a broad selection from which to choose, comfort and fit often become the deciding factor for an employee’s next pair of work shoes.

Meeting OSHA regulations is the employer's responsibility, but arguably, the comfort of all personal protective equipment also should be high on the priority list. Employee attitude and performance are the reasons they should care.

Components of a Comfortable Boot
With the large selection of safety shoes and boots on the market today, manufacturers are rapidly innovating comfort technologies that one-up their competition, and consumers are quick to share their feedback and help determine who the leaders are in comfortable safety footwear. Comfort is important all day long, not just when you pull on your boots in the morning—it's the end of the day feeling.

That all-day comfort feeling is based on the boot's construction. Two of the most prevalent types of construction are cement and Goodyear welt. A cemented construction lends itself to flexibility of the boot or shoe right out of the box, while a Goodyear welt construction conforms to the shape of the foot more closely. Because of the complex process of the Goodyear welt construction boot, it takes a little bit of time to completely conform to the foot.

Comfortable Fit as a Safety Feature
The innovation and thought that results in a comfortable boot is seemingly one of the most important parts of our work boots, but as we all know, adhering to standards from ASTM International (a global standards development organization) is an equally important component of building a premier work boot. Unfortunately, having a variety of safety footwear to choose from doesn't always lead to employees who are happy with the boots or shoes on their feet. Helping an employee select his pair of safety footwear can save him discomfort, but it also helps the company in the long run contribute to employee well-being.

"The true sign of a good safety boot is when your feet don't cross your mind all day, and that happens with a good fit," said Billy Lovell, product developer for Justin Original Workboots.

By sharing these simple tips for choosing safety footwear, employers can help close the gap on this somewhat daunting shopping process.

Tips for Choosing Comfortable Safety Footwear

  • Evaluate the weight of the boot—are they too heavy?
  • Choose a shoe or boot that leaves your toes some extra room at the front.
  • Determine whether you have the right width by bending the boot at the ball of your foot. The toe cap shouldn't pinch your foot. If it does, try a half-size larger.
  • Check the fit around the heel—it should feel snug and secure once the boot is pulled on or laced.
  • Try on your new safety shoes with the socks you’ll wear on the job and walk around the store in them to make sure they fit well.

Though comfort plays a large part in each employee’s decision process, simplifying the safety standards for employees to ensure they can confidently purchase all of the required personal protective equipment is also extremely important. There are a few ASTM mandated safety standards surrounding footwear that frequently are clouded in confusion for employees and other consumers. The first point of confusion is the difference in safety toes that meet the ASTM F2413-11 safety standard. Safety toe regulations are in place to mitigate injury in a workplace where there’s a hazard of damage to the toes. Currently, there are several types of safety toes available in the marketplace that meet and/or exceed the ASTM safety standards, such as steel and composite toes.

Safety Toe Features
The toe caps in steel toe safety shoes are made from steel, which is a good conductor of both cold and hot temperatures. This simply means that after prolonged exposure to hot or cold temperatures, the steel toe will retain its environmental temperature even after it has been removed from the environment. The steel toe is also going to contribute to the weight of boot, making it the heavier option among safety toes.

The toe caps in composite toe safety shoes are made from non-metal materials that aren't efficient conductors of hot or cold temperatures. These materials could include Kevlar, carbon fiber, plastic, or fiberglass. Because composite toes don't conduct heat or cold well, the wearer can expect them to slowly reach environmental temperatures but not to retain the same temperature for long periods of time once removed from the environment. The composite toe is also known for being a lighter-weight option among safety toes.

The next component of safety boot features to consider is not yet mandated by OSHA for all industries but may be necessary to consider, depending on an employee's hazard risks. Internal metatarsal guards are just as important to foot protection because they offer coverage beyond the end of the safety toe cap to the top of the foot. They act as the safety vest for the foot in hazardous environments where the risk of something dropping or falling on the foot is likely.

An Additional Safety Feature to Consider
The final safety feature in employee footwear protection to consider across industries is slip-resistant technology. In 2013, in the United States alone, there were 229,190 nonfatal cases of injury and illness related to falls, slips, and trips involving days away from work in private industries alone, according to OSHA. Though slip resistant testing isn't currently mandated by OSHA, it is arguably a very important feature to consider when educating employees on safety footwear. The right compound of materials and a good tread design are essential to a slip-resistant outsole. Though there isn't an outsole in the marketplace today that is 100 percent slip resistant, a higher number of leading edges in the tread design and the right material can make the difference when it comes to a potential slip or fall.

While safety technologies and comfort of footwear protection are vastly different topics, they both contribute to the same end goal—fewer accidents in the workplace. "The most important safety feature of all is a comfortable fit," said Lovell. "There are plenty of choices when it comes to boots that meet ASTM standards, but nothing can replace a boot that meets safety standards, and is also a comfortable-fitting boot that won't get in the way of the job."

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

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