Steel Toe and Much More

"While there are several common denominatiors, each of our product introductions meets a unique need of the consumer."

Editor's note: Today's protective footwear is fashionable, comfortable, and highly functional, with some lines offering anti-fatigue qualities plus protection against water, abrasion, slips, and oils. Still, the safety manager's educational role remains crucial in selecting the right boot or shoe for the hazard(s), Jim O'Connor, director of marketing for Timberland PRO, said in the following e-mail interview with the OH&S editor. Excerpts from the exchange follow:

OH&S: At the mention of work shoes, steel toe immediately comes to mind. Is steel toe the key protective quality that safety managers and end users seek in footwear today, or is some other quality more important?

Jim O'Connor: Steel toe protection is important, however, few things have such a dramatic impact on a person's overall health and well-being as their feet, as problems that begin here often spread to other areas, including the back. The constant pressure of working long hours on a hard, unforgiving surface can contribute to a variety of problems — most notably, fatigue. The body needs to work harder to compensate for the lack of support, which makes the muscles tired and the body more exhausted. The eff ects are exacerbated when the worker has to exert force or complete a repetitive motion over a long period of time. These jobs — particularly those that require extended hours on one's feet — demand anti-fatigue protection. Anti-fatigue solutions are available for various applications. Some styles are lightweight and feature soles that are designed with fluid-channeling, high surface contact for cement or epoxy flooring, while others are more rugged with protective rubber toe overlays, rubber soles, and puncture-resistant plates under-foot for additional protection.

Slips and falls are also common causes of injury in the workplace. According to data from OSHA, slip-related accidents account for the majority of general industry accidents and 15 percent of all accidental deaths of workers on the job. Footwear choice can help minimize this risk with anti-slip soles and specific sole tread designs and compounds, which determine the shoe's ability to maximize coefficient of friction and expel fluids or contaminants. Microlug patterns (tiny lugs) with multiple leading edges can provide good slip resistance on smooth surfaces, while a "toothy" lug pattern is best for rugged outdoor conditions.

To address this need, Timberland PRO is introducing a new line in the fall called Industrial Traction, a series of boots designed to enhance slip performance with uniquely positioned lugs that maximize surface contact and evacuate water, dirt, and oil upon impact.

Ultimately, before making the investment in work footwear, as an employer or an employee, workers must examine the specific job and determine what that worker needs to be safe, successful, and comfortable.

Some of your boots off er steel toe but also much more: They're waterproof, abrasion resistant, slip resistant, oil resistant, and off er an anti-microbial footbed and electrical hazard resistance. How has protective footwear evolved in materials used, protective capabilities, durability, and comfort to become the products we have today?

O'Connor: Since Timberland PRO launched in 1999, our protective footwear off erings have certainly evolved, and these innovations are a result of our product team constantly traveling to job sites for immersion. They talk with safety managers and consumers to find out what they're getting or not getting from their workboots and study their work environments.

As a result, while there several common denominators, each of our product introductions meets a unique need of [the] consumer. One of the most popular is . . . a platform that combines comfort with lightweight protection, featuring an alloy toe that provides the same level of protection as steel, but with one-third the weight. Since then, we've launched everything from abrasion-resistant leathers, to uniquely insulated cold weather boots, to boots with metatarsal protection, to boots made to withstand extreme heat.

Th roughout the development and changes in the protective footwear industry, two things remain consistent in our design process: We make durable products that off er the utmost comfort and fit, and we maintain the aesthetics our worker desires so workers can hold onto their workboots for many years without retiring them.

So we know great products are available. Yet to choose the appropriate ones, the safety manager or end user still must accurately assess the hazards to which the wearer is exposed, correct?

O'Connor: Yes, that is correct. Safety managers educate their workers on the hazards associated with the job and provide proper training. It's also important for employees to be well informed, taking advantage of any training available from their employer, union, or safety society. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) law requires employers to provide a workplace that is safe and free from hazards; workers should familiarize themselves with OSHA standards in order to easily spot unsafe conditions.

When it comes to footwear, employers and safety managers can be great resources of information about what potential hazards an employee might encounter. Your feet are the tool you use, uninterrupted, for the entire 8-10 hour workday, so it's important to select the right work boot for the job. Consider the external environment in which you'll be working and the specific tasks you'll be performing. You want a style that is durable, comfortable, and lightweight, but the specifics can vary. Consider elements like an appropriate traction pattern, a protective toe cap, cold weather — or, conversely, high-heat — protection, and a protective toe overlay of rubber or another abrasion-resistant material. Making the right choice will not only keep you safe and comfortable, but you can extend the life of your work boot.

Hazards and exposures vary in some applications, such as food processing, construction, or law enforcement. What's the solution for foot protection in those circumstances?

O'Connor: For food processing, it's important to consider foot protection that off ers slip resistance, given that the surfaces food processing workers work on are smooth and can be wet or dry. Also, given that these workers are on their feet the majority of the day, it's important to consider attributes such as anti-fatigue.

For those in law enforcement, it's important to consider foot protection with anti-fatigue attributes designed to stand up to a variety of conditions (rain, humidity, snow, etc.), as these workers often spend long hours on foot and work in challenging conditions. The footwear should also be lightweight and tactile so the user can move quickly and not be weighed down with bulky footwear.

What should tell an end user that his/ her footwear needs to be replaced? Do workers often wear their footwear beyond its useful life?

O'Connor: Sometimes it's driven by a voucher, so the employer essentially decides. However, workers should check for abrasion on the upper, wear through the sole, and, most importantly, how comfortable the boot is, as insoles should be replaced when possible; if your knees and back are sore, this is the first sign that you need new boots.

What about custom footwear -- do you and other footwear companies provide it? What kind of requests for custom boots or shoes do you receive?

O'Connor: Not really. There are aft ermarket products available, such as toe bumpers, but the best way to address these types of needs is with rubber overlays and abrasion-resistant materials.

What other issues/problems come up these days when safety managers or end users communicate with your company?

O'Connor: Timberland PRO meets with safety managers and end users on an ongoing basis (on the job site, at national and regional safety shows, and other venues) to understand what issues we can solve through design, aesthetics, and materials to improve the overall performance of our boots. These conversations and environmental observations help to dictate the design and development process. Timberland PRO focuses on product quality and maintaining relationships with safety managers and consumers to develop products that are truly problemsolving.

Bullard has the Turtle Club for workers who've escaped serious injury because they were wearing a hard hat. Footwear is essential protection, too, and wearing appropriate shoes or boots will prevent serious injuries. Can you describe some of the stories you've heard from customers about injuries they avoided because of your products?

O'Connor: Customers have told us about heavy equipment such as tractors falling on their feet and have praised the fact that the safety toes in our boots did not fail, therefore, preventing serious injuries. (We do not have a club of any sort.)

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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