Back to the Basics

Everyday incidents bring home the real need for explaining the fundamentals of occupational foot protection.

His safety toe work shoes were so caked with layers of sticky, thick, red mud, inside and out, that I doubted he could ever get them clean again. I watched this landscaper cram his feet into wet muddy socks and back into the same mud-caked shoes. It was only 7 a.m. that morning, so it would be a long day with painful results for this worker who was doing tasks ranging from using mowing equipment to setting a retaining wall on a construction site. I asked the job supervisor, who shrugged and answered, “He’s new. He’ll learn.”

Those of us who wear foot protection on the job know the consequence of not taking care of our shoes is losing both our comfort and our ability to work safely. In truth, those of us who wear protective shoes or boots have at one time or another worn them wet,damaged, or soiled/contaminated in some manner. We learned, one hopes, without injury or incident. Even being safety professionals, we get in a hurry and forget or disregard the rules, just like all other employees.

But we do learn from mistakes and, because we have made them, can assist others to work more safely and comfortably. This is not a “do as I say, not as I do,” but more of a “hey, there is a better way—let me show you.”

So the muddy-shoe time of year is here once more. I see a lot of construction workers, landscapers, and other outside workers wearing occupational foot protection that has been abused.When I do, I always wonder whether anyone has ever explained to them how to care for work shoes and boots.You know what I mean: the simple things, such as keeping the footwear clean and in good repair.Allowing it to dry completely before wearing.And socks? Does anyone explain the injury potential of wearing wet socks all day or the blisters and other injuries, such as fungus, that can occur? Has anyone addressed first aid for these problems?

If this information has been delivered, what happened? Why do employees, new and seasoned alike, not take care of one of the most important pieces of safety equipment?

Root Causes
Carelessness. Many employees do not consider their foot protection until either an accident occurs or their feet begin to hurt.

Ignorance. Some employees do not understand how to care for work boots or how to clean shoes properly using the correct method and materials. Gasoline, for example, is not an all-purpose solvent for cleaning work boots, but we still see it used in some cultures.

Fear. Employees may be afraid to ask questions or fear teasing from others when asking for help. Education has to be offered to everyone in order to capture this group. Some will not admit to pain or having any problems until the situation is serious, in order to be invisible at the workplace.

Supervision. Make sure your supervisors take foot protection seriously and follow up on problem areas, such as employees not wearing appropriate foot protection, wearing it incorrectly, or failing to keep it clean.

Education. Have your employees been educated on what to wear and how to select the correct foot protection for the job? Can they ask questions without a group around?

Explain to your employees what the real need is for occupational foot protection. It is more than policy and code compliance. Evaluate the real hazards, whatever they may be, at your workplace and help to protect and guide your employees to protect themselves from the common and not-so-common injuries. Many employees do not fully understand the job dangers, and it is part of the supervisor’s role to educate them.

Real-World Hazard Evaluation
Only in a perfect world do all employees do the same tasks, day in and day out.Most employees will offer or be asked to take on different tasks from time to time, and this may change their need for foot protection.When the hazard changes, the footwear should improve to meet the hazard.

Even when employees volunteer their services (such as during a crisis situation), they must be outfitted correctly for the job. From restaurant workers dealing with grease on the floor near a frying station to health care employees needing quality construction and ease of sanitation, to a foundry worker or a painter working with electrostatic spraying, footwear for the hazard exists and is available. Employees need to be aware of what they need and when they need it.

Many employees disregard hazard potential at their workplace, thinking an injury will never happen to them.More than once, I have seen workers wearing tennis shoes working with rollers on terrazzo flooring, completely oblivious to the danger. You’ll see movers of heavy equipment wearing only leather shoes without safety toes.Are your employees aware of and paying attention to the danger of falling objects, slips and falls, etc.? What about unique hazards? Are these tasks evaluated on a regular basis in case the jobs are becoming more hazardous?

For many years, blame was a part of any safety program. If an employee did not wear the correct shoes on site, for example, he was blamed and suffered the consequences accordingly. Now, with better management and an understanding of which methods really work, blame is being replaced (slowly) with reinforced education that is provided prior to exposure to the hazard and reinforced regularly through reminders,supervisor interaction, and reviews. It is a system that takes time to be successful, but given time and energy and concern, it does work.

We can no longer assume workers understand the hazards of their jobs or how to select and care for PPE, such as foot protection. No longer only using skilled tradesmen, we now have workplaces filled with inexperienced newcomers, experienced workers, temporary staffers, and those who have promoted up the ranks and may not have been educated in the selection and care of foot protection. Make sure your supervisors are working toward your goals, too.

Waiting until after the accident is too little, too late. Educate and mentor your workforce by answering their questions about common problems. The results will usually show on your injury logs with fewer or lesssevere injuries.

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

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