Guidelines for a Quality Program

Keeping these considerations in mind will place your occupational foot protection program on sound footing.

That’s a clever use of duct tape, I thought, but it’s not reasonable for work boots. The employee wore a pair of dry, rotted-leather safety shoes that were being held together with duct tape, and he was trying to make it to payday. I’ve seen other employees who have purchased used safety shoes that had been worn down, causing uneven foot surfaces or treads that could potentially cause a fall. I’ve also seen the super-discount safety shoes, which are hard to walk in and extremely heavy.

We have all stretched the use of a pair of workboots or shoes that should have been tossed because of being worn down, fitting poorly, or becoming contaminated. How, then, do we send the message to employees that wearing good-quality, fitted footwear is in their best interest?

Our employees work hard, and most of them are standing a great deal of their work shift. Do your employees use appropriate shoes for the hazards at work? Does your shoe/foot protection policy cover everything it should? Cast a critical eye on your injury history at your workplace. If you spot a trend in foot injuries or falls, it may be an indicator that more is needed (from you) for foot protection at your site.

From food service and health care to heavy construction, employees need to wear quality, correctly fitted shoes. Don’t focus solely on safety toes; stay aware of the need for slip resistance and wear; ensure that you educate your supervisors on inspecting employees’ footwear and what is needed in the workplace. Face the facts: Your employees’ foot protection is a direct extension of your safety program.

Occupational foot protection comes in many forms, from shoes to shoe covers, boots, shoe caps, safety toes, metatarsal protection, and more. Some items to consider for managing your program and your PPE wisely include these:

Policy. Is your corporate foot protection policy in writing and available to employees? Depending on the work being done, is your shoe policy reasonable? When was the last time it was reviewed and updated? For high-hazard situations, most employees fully understand and accept shoe guidelines. The murky hazard area (such as a graphics shop where sharp blades may be dropped) often require more education and inspection.

Employees want to relax in the summer months, and many will try to wear open shoes or even flip-flops to the office. What actions do your supervisors take? One important phrase to have in the policy is: "Appropriate shoes will be worn at all times.” Other office environments do not allow open-toed shoes or high heels, to help prevent falls. This becomes more important if employees rotate to different jobs or locations in a plant where the hazards may increase.

Purchasing guidelines. Who pays? How much, and how often? When was the last time the amount was increased? Are your purchasing guidelines clear and available to all employees? What about those whose primary language is not English?

One of the largest problems with purchasing guidelines is the lack of awareness for employees. Employees think that if a company purchases one pair of safety shoes a year, that is all they need and will buy. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Daily use of any type of foot protection causes the sole and support to wear down. Heavier employees or those with other health issues, such as hip problems, may cause uneven wear areas on shoe beds, too.

Employee and supervisor education. One of the most overlooked areas of occupational foot protection is simple education. Instruct your employees about the problems of sharing shoes (this happens more often than you think!) and how to care for shoes (and feet) properly. Preach the value of good-quality socks! Advise employees of the need to allow shoes (leather work boots, for example) to completely dry out between wearings.

Make sure they understand what is acceptable and those situations that are not acceptable (sandals, severely damaged shoes, inappropriate shoes, etc.) Make sure your supervisors are consistent in inspections!

Sizing and selection. Give employees specific instructions on what is needed for a work area or job, such as slip-resistant soles, water resistance, ankle support, etc., depending on your task analysis of the job. Pick a good selection of shoes that are appropriate in different price ranges. Some employees want the very best in comfort and material. Others simply want cheap.

Slip resistance. When employees work with grease and oil—from the shop floor to the local fast-food kitchen—they need quality slip resistance with all footwear. Water resistance becomes important, too.

Storage. Many companies saw storage and decontamination problems after Hurricane Katrina. Work shoes/boots were not properly cleaned and were stored wet or in places with high humidity, and mold/fungus became an issue. Other employees toss work shoes or boots in their locker or truck bed at the end of a shift, thinking nothing of them until the next wearing. Shoes can warp if exposed to something heavy on top of them, and that can lead to a fall.

Cleaning and decontamination. Depending on what your employees work with, cleaning and decontamination are important issues. If your maintenance staffers are working in ankle-deep raw sewage, then report to a clean area for other repairs, you have a contamination problem. Added protection may be needed for these employees, ranging from disposable shoe covers to replacement boots. Cleaning and decontaminating need to be a daily routine for employees. They also need to learn to inspect footwear correctly.

Replacement. Chances are, unless the damage is work related, employees have to replace their own shoes if more than one pair a year is needed. Explain why this is needed and what happens if they do not.

Inspections. It sounds silly, but if your supervisors will simply look at employees’ shoes from time to time, many issues will be corrected before the injury. One trend recently among younger workers was to wear open work boots with loose shoelaces. Or their shoes were too big. Other workers will wear shoes past their useful life expectancy, even when they are damaged or contaminated.

Why This Protection Matters
Most employees never think about their occupational foot protection until there is a problem or an injury. Many of us know there is no greater misery than working all day in shoes that do not fit correctly. Make sure new employees understand how to break in safety shoes and how their walking will be different until they are used to the new shoes. Not all foot protection is heavy, but it may fit differently than the new employee’s street shoes.

What often goes unnoticed is the positive difference in overall workplace safety when your employees wear the correct type(s) and correctly sized shoes. If you can not answer the needs, call in a professional source or a drive-by vendor. Help is available for selection of foot protection items and unique questions or problems. As the safety professional of the company, be ready for questions and be glad they are calling!

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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