The Softer Side of Safety

Unlike styles of the past, today's protective footwear answers the needs of female workers.

The last thing most gals think of when they’re getting dressed in the morning is safety. We women, some of us highly influenced by the styles we see in the media, are usually concerned about wearing things that are flattering, fashionable, and fit our unique shape. However, speaking from experience, I believe safety should be the most important “fashion” consideration, especially when dressing for your job. Your safety (and possibly that of others around you) counts on it!

No longer for “just the guys,” safety equipment and apparel have caught up with the ladies of the workplace and their need for fit, comfort, and sizing range. Not too long ago, the new female employee often was outfitted with the smallest man’s safety work gear, from safety glasses that were too large to heavy and ill-fitting safety shoes and apparel (PPA) that was fitted with tape and aggravation. But “Rosie the Riveter” is past; today’s female workers are technically skilled and found in all occupations, from foundry to biolab: they are landscapers, professional chefs, food service or health care workers, and artisans in high-tech plastics.

From standing all day in one place to hard walking, climbing, or even high-hazard situations, their PPA, PPE, and foot protection have to measure up in comfort and correct fit. The female worker needs correct sizing, not just a smaller man’s size, and the PPA/PPE industry has met the demand with greater ladies’ sizing and material considerations.

I recently attended the American Society of Safety Engineers’ annual conference and noticed an array of footwear in use at the conference and outside it. While waiting in the badge line, I struck up a conversation with the woman standing next to me. I smiled and nodded toward a gentleman who was wearing open cork bed sandals with his dress slacks and company designated polo shirt.

“How’s that for a representation of good safety?” I quipped and smiled to my new friend. “Those tender toes are open to all kinds of pain in those shoes! I don’t think he realizes this is a safety conference.” In our short time together in line, we gabbed about women’s safety and the many issues a woman should consider when getting ready for her workday.

Consider your female workers and the questions each one might ask herself:

Could anything I wear today get caught on or in machinery at my job? How about dangling or untied shoelaces? Does your employer orient all new female employees about these hazards?

What are potential hazards in my workplace? Pay special attention to slip resistance, safety shoe requirements, and special hazards such as chemical exposure. Make sure safety PPA and PPE do not catch or interfere with each other. Bunched-up PPA at the ankles is a great example; select a smaller size.

Are my feet safe from dropped items?

Do I have the appropriate safety equipment nearby or on my person in the correct size and materials?

Am I wearing the correct safety shoes for my work? Do they fit properly and allow me to walk easily without dragging the toe?

Advice from the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society
More than 43.1 million Americans—one in every six people in the country—have trouble with their feet, mostly from improperly fitting shoes. A huge public health risk, foot problems cost the United States $3.5 billion a year.

We’re all susceptible to foot and ankle injuries, but we can reduce our risk by wearing properly fitting shoes that conform to the natural shape of our feet. In selecting shoes, keep this basic principle of good fit in mind: Your feet should never be forced to conform to the shape of a pair of shoes.

Shoes that do not fit can cause foot disorders: bunions, corns, and blisters. Start with a good-quality stocking or sock. Socks of a nylon/cotton blend not only conform to feet well, but also the nylon helps to wick away moisture.

Feet increase in size as we age, so having your foot measured by a professional at least once per year ensures comfort from a good fit.

Don’t judge shoes by heel tightness. Soles of new shoes will take time to break in, so don’t think you need a smaller size just because the heel may slip a little. The most important part of the foot to fit is the forefront of the foot, and a little bit of movement on the heel is normal.

When your foot bends to take a step in a new shoe, the heel of the shoe may slip slightly. A looser shoe generally will not cause blisters, but you can be assured that a tight shoe will. You should be able to wiggle your toes in your new shoes.

Breaking in new shoes over the course of a week by wearing them a couple of hours a day will ensure a truly comfortable fit. Fit the shoes to your larger foot and use an insert or other fitting aid for the smaller foot.

For comfort and correct fit, shoes should be fitted either in the afternoon or at the end of one’s workday. Choosing the lowest heel possible and a shoe that covers most of the foot will assist in foot balance.

Purchasing two pair of shoes with the intent to alternate them will do more than make the shoes last longer; this practice is better for one’s feet. Our feet produce up to a cup of sweat a day, and allowing shoes to air out will contribute to the longevity of the shoes.

To keep my shoes fresh, I like to take a dryer sheet, cut it lengthwise, and place it inside my shoes at the end of my day. Some folks keep a dryer sheet in their shoes while they are worn to cut down on odor.

Is Safety Stylish? You Bet!
Will you see safety shoes on Sarah Jessica Parker’s feet in her latest movie? No, you won’t, but style is catching up fast with specialty use occupations. The newest slip resistance and lightweight materials in easy to- care-for items make it easier for the gals to choose and wear safety equipment every day in all industries. Female workers are noticed, and often it is because they wear the latest in safety gear to improve their personal comfort.

And, let’s face it, you work safer when you are comfortable.

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

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