Keeping Your Footing

Assessing myriad hazards and personal characteristics is part of the equation for proper protection.

WHEN a recognized hazard cannot be eliminated through engineering controls (at the source) or reduced through administrative controls (staff rotation, procedure development), the last line of defense is through the use of personal protective equipment. One common type of PPE that is also often downplayed is foot protection.

There are 250,000 occupational foot injuries occurring every year, an average of one injury every 30 seconds. Up to 75 percent of those injuries are from workers not wearing any foot protection at all!

Think about all that your feet can be exposed to in a work environment and what needs to be considered to select the right foot protection. Consider traction and surface friction, falling hazards, punctures from sharp objects, chemical exposures, electrical and static discharge exposures, heated surfaces, and environmental temperatures, just to name a few. The structure of the feet is another consideration. Instep, arches, width, length, the person's gait or stride, ankle support, bone structure in both the foot and the body, back (vertebrae and discs) concerns--which all can affect how feet will perform in a shoe or boot.

Making a Choice
I hope it is obvious that when you are selecting foot protection, it must meet the standards established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and be so marked on the footwear. Just as with safety glasses, if the footwear is not designated as ANSI-approved, it is not appropriate for wear as protective gear.

An employee needs guidance when selecting the right shoe or boot. Some employers simply instruct new employees to purchase steel-toe shoes or boots. The employee may not know or understand what type of steel-toe protection is necessary or whether ankle support is needed. If working in a low-risk environment, basic steel-toe protection may be all that is necessary. But the employee may not realize there are various levels of protection, or that different cuts, styles, and manufacturers have footwear that is not constructed the same. So the employee selects a product based on price alone, regardless of style, fit, or protection level.

This prompts the question, "I thought protective footwear was PPE that has to be provided by the employer?" Footwear falls into the category of being "personal" and capable of being used outside of the workplace. This means an employer does not have to purchase the footwear while still requiring protection.

Particularly in low-risk settings where the footwear needs only to be nominal, employees may choose a shoe or boot that can double outside of work for hobbies or recreational activities. In other cases, such as the need for metatarsal boots or high-risk exposures requiring a certain type of footwear, the employer may elect to purchase the footwear for the employee.

Other employers provide a dollar allocation or reimbursement program toward the purchase of footwear, and the employee selects the type of footwear. This is not a bad option as long as the employee is not making the selection simply to pocket the difference by choosing the least-expensive footwear. If the employer has already identified a supplier, the employee will select from the choices provided.

What's Required?
No one shoe or boot provides 100 percent coverage for all potential hazards, so there must be an on-site assessment to determine which selection will offer the greatest level of protection. At times, more than one selection may have to be available based on the workforce's exposures during specific tasks.

Many people ask when steel-toe boots are necessary. In other words, how heavy an object at what falling height constitutes a need for steel-toe (if not metatarsal) protection? There is no definitive answer in the OSHA standards (1910.136 and 1910.132, the general standard addressing PPE); they simply refer to the ANSI Z41 standard that addresses protective footwear. They offer performance-based criteria for various protection levels without specifying when foot protection is needed. There are three levels of steel-toe footwear that include testing a 30-pound weight dropped from a height of 7 1/4 inches; a 50-pound weight dropped from 12 inches; and a 75-pound weight dropped from 18 inches.

Making the on-site assessment and looking at all the tasks involved will help determine what level of protection employees will need.

The Risk Assessment and the Risks
When conducting the risk assessment, some factors to consider include the need for protective footwear at all, followed by the need for steel-toe, metatarsal (top of the foot), chemical-resistant, puncture-resistant, electrically rated for maintenance, and high heat-resistant (such as a foundry boot) footwear.

Ask questions about the type of terrain and equipment used to determine whether a low-cut shoe or a high, ankle-supportive boot is needed. Will insulated boots be necessary to protect from temperature extremes? Will your workers need a weather- or water-resistant boot for outdoor or wet environments? Are there items that require elevated storage or manual lifting and moving that can drop or fall?

Other risk areas to assess include walking and working surfaces--asphalt; concrete; steel grating; fiberglass (such as ladder rungs); wet, dry, oily, or greasy flooring; steps--all of which contribute to slip-and-fall hazards. The right sole design for traction must be evaluated if such risks must be addressed.

Once the assessment is complete, be sure to have a company protective footwear policy that identifies what the employees are expected to wear. Without a written policy in place, confusion and personal interpretation of the requirements can lead to serious exposures to risk.

As with all PPE, remember that there are limitations to your selection(s) of footwear. Having protective footwear can reduce exposure to hazards but it does not take the place of good work practices! Slips and falls remain a risk depending on the working surfaces, what accumulates on the bottom of the footwear, and weather. Ensuring that employees walk rather than run, use handrails going up and down stairs, and communicate and correct unsafe conditions from weather or spilled substances will reduce the slip-and-fall risk from inadequate traction.

Treat Feet with Respect
Your foot consists of 26 bones and a network of ligaments, tendons, cartilage, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels to allow for coordinated walking, standing, jumping, running, and all of the other senses and movements that we go through every day. Once in a while, that foot needs some attention, just a little bit of TLC.

After all, you are going to average 115,000 miles of walking in your lifetime on every type of surface imaginable. Ensuring your feet are well maintained will get you through those miles with little discomfort.

Away from work, it is equally important to have the right footwear for what you are doing. Wear safety footwear when doing outside chores or working on hobbies such as cutting the grass, home repairs, or moving furniture. Get the right structured footwear for sports. There are different kinds of footwear for basketball, jogging, hiking, and aerobic exercise. As with PPE, there is no one type that provides optimal wear for all activities.

If your feet are tired, it is OK to pamper them with a warm soak or light massage. Keeping them dry with sweat-absorbing socks and a light dusting of powder (along with basic personal hygiene) reduces the risk of infections, especially if you must work long hours in hot or cold environments. If you develop a corn or callus, don't surgically remove it yourself. Serious infections can set in, not to mention the pain, bleeding, and overall discomfort associated with homemade maneuvers. Instead, see a podiatrist (foot doctor) for that extra-special care.

Blisters usually result from footwear that does not fit right. Just like a corn or callus, do not attempt to pop your blister. Any break in the continuity of the skin can result in an infection developing.

Finally, your feet need exercise. The American Podiatric Medical Association states that a leisurely stroll or a brisk walk (in the proper footwear and not under "load" at work) helps to keep feet functioning well. In addition, there are foot exercises that include:

  • The towel pull, not be confused with the toe pull. This is not running a towel between your toes to inflict pain. While seated, place a rolled towel under your feet. Push down on the towel with your feet while pulling or lifting up on the towel with your hands.
  • The toe wiggle. Move your toes back and forth and up and down to increase their range of motion.
  • The toe raise. With bare feet approximately 6 inches apart, slowly raise and lower yourself on your toes. If using a chair or object to support your body, make sure the object does not wind up on your bare feet.

Your feet must perform under various types of work and stress. Choosing the right footwear and keeping your feet in good health ensures that performance is pain-free. Don't settle for the cheapest at the expense of your feet. You have the control--make the right choices and do the right things!

This article originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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