Good Foot Protection Revolves Around Common Sense

Here's a staggering fact: Three out of four footwear injuries in the workplace are the direct result of employee non-compliance.

A good workplace safety policy begins and ends with the employee. It makes sense for the employer to establish a solid safety policy, but it is always up to the employees to adhere to the regulations before they come into work for their shifts. It's not a question of comfort or convenience--it's literally a matter of life and limb.

Workplace managers and supervisors must consistently enforce safety regulations. If an employee forgets or simply doesn't want to bring in the correct equipment, the manager should send him or her home. Under no circumstances should those in authority turn a blind eye to the lack of safety equipment in the workplace. Doing so puts both the employee and the company at risk.

Consider this sobering statistic: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), three out of four footwear injuries in the workplace are the direct result of employee non-compliance. That number is staggering! It seems common sense isn't that common.

Governmental regulations are in place precisely because accidents do happen, and they are costly. According to the National Safety Council, more than 180,000 foot-related injuries occurred in the workplace in 1997. That equates to roughly 400 injury claims a day at an estimated cost of $6,000 per claim. In 2000, BLS recorded 1,509 foot and toe injuries that were deemed serious enough to incur worker's compensation filings for lost time.

So why aren't some workers getting the message? One explanation is that many work environments are dangerous for more than one reason. It's possible to be in danger of a foot injury from a rolling object, rusty nails, and other sole-piercing menaces, as well as electrical hazards, drop hazards, and even slippery surfaces. It's impractical to require an employee to carry three or four types of safety footwear around, in the event the environment will suddenly require a different pair than the ones currently strapped to the worker's feet. So what's an employee supposed to do?

Ground Rules for Employees
First, an employee should be aware of his surroundings. If he's not familiar with the dangers around him, his manager must properly inform and instruct him. It's no secret that many industries can be dangerous; the problem is that some employees are too embarrassed to ask. They might feel intimidated or inferior if they don't know the basics of workplace safety and instead of asking a question, they make a dangerous assumption.

Second, an employee should be made aware of the proper techniques associated with his job. Safety precautions are a necessary first step, but proper training and common sense go a long way toward ensuring an employee's safety and productivity. If an employee makes poor assumptions about her workplace, it can lead to a serious accident or death. It never hurts an employee to ask more questions; ignorance hurts. Managers should be aware of this and supervise the employee closely during the training phase of her job. Posting the proper literature can also help: Government agencies list hundreds of posters and publications on their Web sites (see the list below).

Third, an employee must be aware of his equipment's capabilities and limitations. Each safety manufacturer should provide appropriate information that informs the worker about the product's purpose. More importantly, if a product does not carry a certain tag--ESD, for example--then the product cannot be assumed to be rated ESD. As a general rule, the employee or the manager should contact the manufacturer directly to see if the product is appropriate for his workplace environment.

Types of Safety Shoes
What makes a safety shoe a "safety" shoe? Occupational footwear is basically defined as footwear that is required while the employee is on duty. There are several key product segments that comprise the occupational footwear market.

1. Impact/compression-resistant footwear uses a steel or composite cap (safety toe) to protect against falling objects or crushing from heavy, rolling objects. Most industrial, manufacturing, and distribution work situations call for safety toe shoes.

2. Metatarsal shoes are designed to prevent or reduce injuries when the metatarsal (upper foot) and toe areas are exposed to "drop" hazards. Metatarsal guards should be worn on jobs involving a forklift or where workers carry heavier objects that could be dropped on their feet.

3. Puncture-resistant footwear should conform to a set of ANSI standards that, when met, reduce the possibility of puncture wounds to the soles of the feet by objects such as nails, glass, or sharp metal that could penetrate the soles of footwear.

4. Electrical Hazard (EH) shoes are nonconductive and designed to reduce the potential for electric shock when the soles are exposed to open circuits of 600 volts or less under dry conditions. Work situations where this footwear is appropriate include the presence of live electrical conductors and construction work sites.

5. Electric Static Dissipative (ESD) footwear reduces static electricity by conducting a charge from the body to the ground, maintaining a high level of electrical resistance under test procedures. These shoes protect the wearer from electrical hazards from excessively low footwear resistance. This type of shoe should be worn in the presence of flammable or explosive materials or when handling sensitive electronic equipment.

6. Conductive shoes are designed to minimize static electricity, thus reducing the possibility of ignition of volatile chemicals or explosives, such as at gunpowder factories and printing plants. These shoes, which discharge static electricity from the wearer's body into grounded floors, are not to be worn near electrical hazards.

7. Slip-resistant footwear is primarily required in the hospitality industry but is becoming more ubiquitous in a variety of other industries. Its composition and tread pattern give better traction than standard shoes.

Jobs with Multiple Hazards
While each industry sector has certain needs that its occupational footwear must meet, some jobs require footwear that "cross the line" and cover two or three requirements. For example, a machinist needs safety toe shoes, but he may also need slip-resistant and puncture-resistant shoes because of his unique work environment. Likewise, an electrician may need both EH and safety toe shoes, not just one or the other.

Many safety footwear manufacturers are recognizing this need, and the race is on to provide shoes that cover more than one segment of the safety footwear market.

Taking Preventative Measures
The best defense is a good offense.
--Anonymous

Managers and supervisors should be proactive about their workplace safety. It won't do any good to sit around and wait for the next accident to occur in order to fix that problem--solid safety precautions must be taken now, before the accidents happen.

Some jobs have been designed more for robots than human beings. Ergonomics is defined as the applied science of equipment design; as for the workplace, it is intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort. Let's face it, some repetitive tasks are ideal for wearing down the human body.

Managers must become attentive to their workers' ergonomic needs. Some workplaces may need to be revamped if the employees stand for all or most of their shifts (especially if they're standing on surfaces with little or no shock absorption). A worker also must be given plenty of time to vary his body's position and the tasks associated with his job. Failure to do so can result in significant ergonomic injuries (often called repetitive stress injuries). This type of injury is unfortunate and entirely avoidable. Some signs of ergonomic stress are: swelling in the feet and/or legs, foot fatigue, discoloration (because of restricted blood flow), varicose veins, and arthritis in the knees, hips, or ankles.

Useful Links

Safety Standards from Nautilus Safety Footwear:

www.footwearspecialties.com/FSIStandards.pdf

 

Occupational Safety & Health Administration:

www.osha.gov

 

Bureau of Labor Statistics:

www.bls.gov

 

U.S. Department of Labor:

www.dol.gov

 

Employment Standards Administration:

www.dol.gov/esa

 

National Safety Council:

www.nsc.org

In addition to using and wearing the proper equipment and varying the tasks associated with their jobs, employees must keep their environment in good working order. Poorly maintained machinery, messy workplaces, poor lighting, and cluttered aisles all contribute to occupational injuries.

Most workplaces have a solid safety policy in place, but it takes careful and consistent application of that policy to reduce employee injuries. Managers and supervisors need to enforce the company's safety policy, and employees need to follow it. Only by working together can a company reduce the total number of foot injuries.

Wishing you happy feet and health....

This article originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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