The Art of Smart Purchasing

Shoemobile service is the best approach for managing your program, footwear manufacturers agree.

Editor's note: Safety directors should be aware of who's buying protective footwear, what types the workers are buying, and how much they are spending. Workers, for their part, must buy footwear suited to their hazard exposure and must watch for damage and obtain replacements when necessary, advise Mark Fancourt, who works in product development for Lehigh Safety Shoe Company (www.ejfootwear.com) of Vestal, N.Y., and Paul Russo, Executive Vice President of Global Sourcing and Marketing for Iron Age Corp. (www.IronAgeShoes.com) of Westborough, Mass. Fancourt and Russo discussed best practices for employer purchase programs and other issues on May 26 and May 31, 2005, respectively, with Occupational Health & Safety's editor. Excerpts from those conversations follow:

OSHA has yet to finalize its "employer pays for PPE" rule, although it remains on the agency's latest rulemaking agenda. How do most companies handle purchasing of employees' safety footwear?

Paul Russo: The best way for employers to get the OSHA compliance they're seeking and still retain some control over costs, is to have shoemobile service and to keep the subsidy program tied to purchasing through the shoemobile service. The alternative of providing employees an allowance to spend at retail tends to turn shoe programs into an entitlement. Employers end up with less control over product selection and cost.

Is there a given percentage that's normal or optimal for the employer to reimburse?

Russo: Most employers provide a subsidy to encourage employees to wear protective footwear. Subsidies may take the form of 100 percent reimbursement or be limited to a fixed dollar limit, typically in the $75 to $125 range per pair. If the environment is extremely harsh and the footwear is subjected to heavy use, then you'll see more than one pair being subsidized per year. In most normal applications, the footwear is not subjected to that type of extreme usage, and you'll get one pair.

Mark Fancourt: Our sales department has indicated that most large companies do subsidize the safety footwear for their employees. The range of the subsidy is generally $50 to $125 annually, with a $75 industry average. In addition, most companies allow payroll deduction for any cost over the subsidy level. This gives the employees the options to purchase footwear they really need and want.

You've said shoemobiles are the best way to handle it. Are most employers handling their footwear programs this way now?

Russo: Yes, and there is a good reason for the fact that most employers use shoemobiles. Employers establish protective footwear programs to assure compliance with OSHA. These programs also represent an important investment in employee safety. Shoemobile service allows the employer to assure all employees are being fitted with the right shoes for the job while also offering the best control over spending. When you're sending all your employees out at one time or in shifts during the course of one day to be fitted for footwear, you know they're coming back with the right footwear. By concentrating spending on one supplier, employers can also obtain the best cost.

Fancourt: Our sales department has also indicated shoemobile service as still being the easiest and most functional approach for the employees and safety directors. A shoemobile comes to the plant with approximately 1,500 pairs of shoes oriented to that operation. The employee is fitted properly and can walk off the truck with a pair of shoes that are comfortable and are geared to his job application.

Do most distributors offer shoemobile programs? Are they available anywhere?

Russo: We provide national coverage, so we can cover all of an employer's sites across North America.

How should safety directors monitor footwear purchases, even if the purchases are left up to employees themselves?

Fancourt: If the safety directors deal with a shoemobile service-oriented company, assistance can be provided to them. Information can be generated regarding which employee purchased safety shoes, as well as what style and pricing. This helps in trying to have the right shoes worn in the various environments. It is more difficult if the safety director allows the employee to go out to purchase footwear anywhere. The employee may not end up with the proper shoe for the hazards involved in his or her particular environment. Other particulars, such as pricing, may also be more difficult to control under these circumstances.

What training and education do workers need when they are choosing footwear?

Fancourt: Workers need to understand the particular hazards of their particular work environments. Do they just need protective toe footwear? Do they possibly need some other features, such as electrical hazard footwear, in the work they are doing? May they possibly need a defined heel for climbing purposes, such as gripping ladder rungs? These are just a few of a number of important questions that could be discussed in the footwear selection process. It is key that the worker understands what is needed and obtains appropriate footwear to address it.

Russo: An important part of our job is to make sure that employees leave our shoemobile with good fitting shoes that are correctly selected for the work environment. Protective footwear is designed not to change its shape--it needs to fit from the beginning.

Good point. It's not like buying tennis shoes at a local store.

Russo: Exactly, because the steel toe is what it is: It's not going to move.
That's probably the most important service we can provide the employee. And then, of course, by being accessible--by having stores, and we have an Internet [service and a central contact center].

What do they need to know about foot injury prevention and about when their footwear should be replaced?

Fancourt: The worker needs to be aware of any damage that has occurred to his or her footwear and address it immediately. If an impact has occurred to the steel toe area, its clearance has been compromised and it should be replaced before a possible second impact could occur. Also, footwear should be replaced if a steel toe cap becomes exposed.

It is important to observe and maintain footwear over time to aid in its performance and life.

Russo: We hold frequent informational meetings where employees can come and talk about what they'd like to see, their questions, any changes or improvements they want. We have a lot of interaction with our customers--with the employees who wear the shoes.

And a lot of interaction with the safety managers who are involved in these programs?

Russo: Absolutely. Other functions are also becoming more interested in protective footwear. We see growing roles for Human Resources and Purchasing. We've made major, major investments to improve our systems-- to dramatically reduce the backroom administrative costs employers incur for their protective footwear programs.

[We] can streamline backroom administration and reduce the number of transactions that go on to support the program. Employers often overlook the many backroom procedures to make a protective footwear program succeed. In addition to Accounting's role in writing checks to the shoemobile suppliers, Human Resources handles payroll deduction, and supervisors have to review and approve the actual spending. All these costs must be added to the cost of the footwear to measure the true total cost of ownership for protective footwear.

Is the end result a better-educated safety manager and a better-educated employee, in terms of what the footwear can do and what they need?

Russo: Absolutely. It also has to be cost effective because this is a significant investment for these employers. . . .

Our system can offer employers a 10 to 15 percent reduction in their total cost of ownership. By dramatically reducing their backroom costs, by giving them highly detailed purchasing data--so they know exactly where they're spending their money, by site--they can do the type of analysis that will allow them at a minimum to reduce their shoe cost, just the shoe cost, 3 to 5 percent a year, every year. We have some employers who have been using that system so successfully that they've been reducing their shoe cost 10 to 15 percent, in addition to the backroom cost reductions.

I assume, then, you frequently find customers or potential customers who really don't know what their shoe programs are costing them?

Russo: We work with 80 percent of the Fortune 500, and we find even the largest customers can rarely tell you more than what they spend on a vendor. They can't tell you, without doing a great deal of study and analysis, where they spent it--which of their locations--how many pairs of shoes they bought, or the average price per pair. They have a difficult time even documenting what their program policies are, or even their subsidy levels.

We have all that information on these companies on our own computer and can provide Purchasing with all that sort of information. So we give them the information they need to be able to manage the costs.

I can see why that would produce significant savings.

Russo: It does. Most companies just don't have the information to manage this particular cost. And they're missing out on a big opportunity.

We've really focused on what we see to be an important shift going on in the safety shoe industry. That shift is that this is a category that needs to be cost effective, as well as a category where employees like the program. They like the selection and choice: That's the minimum requirement. The shoes must work, they must protect the people, people must want to wear them. What we've added to the equation are systems to make the spending data available to the employer so they can manage these costs, and we can help them do that.

We still feel there's a lot of room to grow in this business. . . . We're going to grow by creating value for the employers that we serve and their employees.

Are resources available to help safety directors conduct hazard assessments? Do manufacturers help with that?

Fancourt: Industrial-oriented companies, such as ours, have district sales managers located throughout the United States who are trained to perform hazard assessments. Our salespeople have a form to aid them in their assessments.

Russo: We do help with hazard assessment. Ultimately, it's the responsibility of the employer. We have a lot of experience and we can advise them and coach them through the process.

In industrial footwear, is steel toe the number one type of protection needed?

Russo: Yes, typically it's steel toe, although we've got a great selection of composite-toe shoes, metal-free protective footwear, as well.

After steel-toe protection, what's the next largest category?

Russo: Slip resistance is a very large category, as well. . . . We're finding even within the steel toe and composite toe there's an interest in slip-resistant shoes, but many slip-resistant applications are "soft toe."

Can companies custom order?

Russo: We do a lot of custom order. Absolutely, that's part of the service we provide. . . . Our catalog really just carries our most popular styles, but there are hundreds of additional styles that we arrange to meet the unique requirements of our customers.

A lot of people, then, need to custom order or need it for special applications?

Russo: Absolutely, special sizes, special applications--it's very important because part of the service that we provide the employer is that the employees are just going to love the selection. It means we have to have a good selection of styles and brands, and a wonderful selection of comfort packages in the shoes.

This article appears in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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