Puncture-Resistant Footwear: Arch Nemesis of the Rusty Nail

Workplace accidents are like backyard accidents: They're no fun and are completely avoidable.

PUNCTURE resistance has become the latest darling in safety footwear features for many manufacturers. Is it really a necessary component, or is it just an extra feature that offers little to no real value?

Most puncture-resistant products can be labeled as such because of a metal plate that is embedded into the outsole during the manufacturing process. Many customers swear by the steel plate because they believe it has stopped more than one rusty nail from puncturing their feet. Others who work around metal detectors can testify that embedded steel plates in their footwear can make for an awfully long workday (especially when the wearer has to remove the shoes each time the alarm sounds). Years ago, a customer told me that wearing footwear with steel plates reminded him of wearing ski boots: They were stiff, heavy clodhoppers that may have protected his soles but killed his lower back in the process.

One compromise is to use a state-of-the-art composite plate instead of steel plates. Some brands have had great success in creating safety features that replace steel protection with composite blends. These extremely lightweight and flexible products become just as effective as their steel-loaded cousins, and many products that are fully certified by ASTM as puncture resistant don't have any steel at all. It's impossible to make steel lighter or more flexible.

Study of Chicago Workers' Puncture Injuries
A recent clinical study of foot puncture wounds in Chicago by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons showed that puncture wounds to the foot were "deceptively mild." And unlike other workplace injuries, workers too often attempted to care for the injuries themselves and became incapacitated for weeks as infection set in.1

In the Chicago AAOS study, 74 percent of all the puncture injuries were suffered by construction workers (average age: 24.5 years old). Does this sound like anyone you know at your job site?

These young workers opted to tough out the puncture wounds, as opposed to other injuries, because they seemed minor. Puncture wounds are particularly awful because the rusty nail deposits bacteria, debris, and pieces of shoe and/or sock deep into sensitive tissue. Combine this with a relatively small surface wound (and the bravado of the stereotypical worker), and you have the makings of a serious foot injury. In this study, 36 percent of the young workers suffered staph infections, and 11 percent suffered permanent foot damage as a result of their inadequate home care.2

This sounds extremely gloomy, and it should. Workplace accidents are like backyard accidents: They're no fun and are completely avoidable. Those of us who study workplace accidents are bound to sound overly cautious, because we've seen what these injuries can do to the human body.

An Answer for Every Hazard
So is puncture resistance more important than other safety components? Certainly not. After all, the potential wounds suffered on a job site are as diverse as the industries themselves: Your feet or toes can be crushed; you can slip and fall; you can be shocked by high voltage; molten metal sparks can burn through your shoes; and the famous rusty nail can deliver that nasty staph infection deep into your foot.

Each of these potential foot injuries has a safety feature created to stop it:

  • Crushing injuries are answered by steel and composite safety toe caps, which can save a worker's toes.
  • Slip-and-fall injuries are countered with specially designed tread patterns and rubber compounds to offer greater grip.
  • Electrical hazards and shocks are averted with special outsoles.
  • Molten metal injuries are stopped with metatarsal guards and extra-durable materials for the boot's uppers.
  • And puncture injuries are stopped by a steel or composite plate.

Much of the problem with workplace injuries is directly related to the work environment itself. Those brave volunteers and civic servants rummaging through the debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina no doubt expected loose nails, screws, pins, scrap metal, wires, etc. and took effective precautions. They could rightly assume that the environment is dangerous. Your local warehouse environment, however, may also be just as hazardous, depending on the safety director and the crew's cleanliness.

The problem is that the assumption is one of general safety. Some job sites are much cleaner than others, and that's where the danger lies--in the assumption of safety. Generally, most construction and demolitions sites can be navigated quite easily with a decent pair of safety footwear. Non-compliance can be a common reason for injury, as can improper use of aging or defective shoes. It is the individual worker's and/or the safety manager's responsibility to properly abide by and enforce company regulations.

How Footwear Has Adapted
Safety footwear has evolved tremendously in recent years. Footwear options have increased as the need for multifaceted footwear has grown. For instance, a worker may cross into several hazardous areas during the same day, but it's impractical at best (and negligent at worst) to require the worker to identify the hazards in an environment and equip himself or herself with the correct pair of shoes for the hazards of the moment.

Therefore, the footwear must adapt to the environment. That's our job as safety footwear designers. One could assume the next logical step would be to create a "SuperShoe," one boot or shoe that embodies all of the possible options (safety toes, slip resistance, puncture resistance, electrical hazard protection, heat-resistant met guards, waterproof leather, and a lightweight and stylish design, to boot). Oh, and it needs to be affordable, too.

There are companies who have tried to create these kinds of products, only to discover their customers don't really like them. It can become overkill, like wearing full body armor and chain mail to a pillow fight. The challenge for the manufacturers is to create shoes that have as many options as possible in an attractive, reasonably priced product. Many consumers are confident about what they want but confused about what they really need. Education on the possible workplace dangers and a balanced product offering can help to reduce overall workplace injuries.

And product development has occurred, yielding flexible, waterproof boots that focus on puncture resistance while resisting heat. This proves puncture resistance is not a fad; it's a common-sense approach to that old foe, the rusty nail. The only real objection to puncture resistance has been the steel plate, a feature that can annoy those who work near metal detectors and those who demand lightweight flexibility.

With the rapid improvement of footwear technology, and with lighter, more flexible alternatives to steel, puncture resistance is quickly becoming a common feature across many brands and styles. We invite you to do your own research on the topic. As for me, I wish you happy feet and health!

References

  1. Faris Alkish, MD, Nazareth Israel Hospital, Edward Calif, MD, Nazareth Israel Hospital, Geries Raga Hakim, MD, Nazareth Israel Hospital. AAOS Lecture, McCormick Place Hall B, March 22, 2006: Chicago, Illinois.
  2. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 6300 N. River Road, Rosemont, IL 60018-9998, United States. Phone: 800-626-6726. www.aaos.org

Foot Protection Checklist
Examples of situations where an employee should wear foot and/or leg protection include:

  • When heavy objects might roll onto or fall on the employee's feet
  • When working with sharp objects such as nails or spikes that could pierce the soles or uppers of ordinary shoes
  • When exposed to molten metal that might splash on feet or legs
  • When working on or around hot, wet, or slippery surfaces
  • When working where electrical hazards are present.

Checklist Items

Yes

No

Does your written foot protection program require the reporting of injuries?

Yes

No

Are program elements enforced and reviewed regularly?

Yes

No

Is there a documented review of employee-owned or -provided footwear?

Yes

No

Do employees know how to report damaged footwear when it is provided by the company?

Yes

No

Is there a policy stating defective or damaged foot protection must not be used and must be removed from service?

Yes

No

Is disciplinary action used when employees do not adhere to the policy?

Yes

No

Are employees instructed on the types of hazards that may cause foot injuries and on preventative measures?

Yes

No

Is the training documented for all employees?

Yes

No

Are all exposed employees wearing protective footwear when necessary?

Yes

No

Are scrap, debris, and waste stored safely and removed from the work site properly?

Yes

No

Are aisles and passageways kept clear from tripping hazards?

Yes

No

Are wet surfaces covered with non-slip materials?

Yes

No

Are changes of direction or elevation readily identifiable?

Yes

No

Where the ground or surface is wet underfoot, do employees wear impervious boots, shoes, rubbers, or other appropriate shoes?

This checklist was compiled from OSHA's online resources and also from a checklist prepared by Linda Johnson Sherrard, MS, CSP, Safety Director for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and technical editor of Occupational Health & Safety. It is not intended to substitute for a comprehensive safety program.

This article appeared in the July 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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