Reality Based Foot Protection
"Employees forget, don't care, get uncomfortable, and take it off at break or lunch. My job is to keep them safe from themselves all day."
"Go HOME -- now!" Red-faced, the supervisor pointed toward the parking area and growled. "Don't come back till you have on your safety gear in one hour, or don't bother to come back at all. YOU HEAR ME? This is your last warning. I don't care whose nephew you are. Clock out."
The object of his wrath was a young summer employee with a less-than-interested work attitude but an assumed higher pedigree through company ties. He had shown up once before without proper safety PPE (including safety shoes, hard hat, etc.) and had been scolded. Other times, he had come in with his shoes untied, dragging the laces, or dangling over his shoulder, intent on putting them on after walking through the job site in sandals.
In this case, the supervisor did a check of every employee before each work section to ensure he/she was correctly outfitted for the assigned duty. I had asked the supervisor; he had a checklist of PPE for each job laminated to his clipboard for quick reference and checked it every two hours. "Every two hours?" I asked. His response was simple: "Employees forget, don't care, get uncomfortable, and take it off at break or lunch. We use a lot of temps, too. My job is to keep them safe from themselves all day."
As you know, keeping a keen eye on your local employees or project is better than any reality show. From construction projects to remote delivery personnel, to ER staff in the lab, foot protection is one of the most-needed items an employee can have (and easily one of the most overlooked).
Think about it; how often do you really look at someone else’s shoes unless you make a specific effort to do so? For your employees, do they take chances and wear street shoes when safety footwear is required? Sandals in lab environments instead of closed-toe shoes? Sneakers on construction sites? I've even seen slippers worn in environments requiring safety shoes. It is easy to overlook if the color blends in or the employee is out of the way. We forget to look closely when it is busy, and we are always busy!
Why Some Don't Comply
We all know the value of using great-quality PPE for foot protection no matter what the work condition calls for. Hot, cold, slippery, steep climbing, logging, electrostatic, chemical exposure, and other special task situations are around us every day. However, the best of equipment only does its job if worn correctly and consistently.
With this in mind, who's taking risks at your work site today? Employees will test your system. Some do this because they can and like "pulling a fast one" on the company. Others are more apathetic and just don't care about safety, thinking an injury can never happen to them. Others really feel safety is a burden and a waste of time, so it is okay to circumvent management efforts. A few employees really do not intend to do anything wrong but remove PPE for comfort reasons.
So what now? It's time to make sure your policy and plan are in place. Here are some items to consider:
- Written policy. If you have one, dust it off and review it for technical correctness and that it suits your workplace now. If you do not have a written policy, there are many available online, through consultants or safety groups. Keep it simple and straightforward for your facility or site. Make sure there is a discipline section, up to and including termination for non compliance. Run it through the safety committee and upper management for support. Pull in previous worker's comp costs of foot injuries as a really good backup, as well as the cost of the injured worker's time out and his/her replacement costs.
- Meet with supervisors as a group with upper management present (or give them a copy of a strongly worded memo from the top) and make sure they understand it is their responsibility to enforce the policy. (Yes, you know their time is valuable . . . so is the lost time during an accident investigation.) Realize up front you will encounter resistance unless you really do have top management's support. Tie this to each supervisor's bonus or performance evaluation for extra emphasis.
- Advise all employees. Use what works -- written, one-on-one conversation, toolbox talks. Repeat often. Emphasize what happens if they show up for work without correct PPE. For example, first offense, send home without pay to get PPE. Second time, docked for the day's wages. Third time, they are looking for another job. (Discuss with HR what actions you can do and let them guide you.)
- Educate, educate, educate about why this is important and who is affected, from the secretary who walks through the shop once in a while in heels to visitors to summer temp employees. Explain what an accident costs and types of accidents the company has had previously, such as amputations. Be honest and graphic.
- Explain the use and limitations of the PPE for their job. Pull in team leaders and supervisors for this duty because they are the most knowledgeable on specifics.
- Be specific about who pays for foot protection items. Tell those applying for jobs this information, too, and when they will be expected to wear PPE, how to repair it, etc.
As safety professionals, we spend a lot of time in researching, selecting, and providing the right PPE for the job, no matter what it is. In the case of occupational foot protection, the industry has responded beautifully with well-fitting and comfortable designs, sizes, durable materials, and product availability. Outstanding comfort, reasonable pricing, and protection are the norm. The sad truth is, with all of this, every day a worker somewhere is injured on a job site who was required to wear PPE but did not have it on.
With a little planning, a lot of education and awareness, and some consistent monitoring by your supervisors, you can avert this situation and reduce employee injuries, increase safety awareness and comfort on the job, and reduce expenses associated with these preventable injuries. You then can spend time on another critical area.
Foot Protection Checklist
No matter whether it's the most open, basic office environment or an ultra-complex, high-rise construction site, its activity and progress depend on our feet. A slip, trip, fall, or crushing injury to the foot can cause havoc with work schedules, cost big bucks through worker's compensation, and inflict much short/long term pain for the injured employee. Over and above the need for quality footwear that meets the needed job, administration, supervision, and support can make a positive difference by influencing the work site and ensuring the parts of sound safety management are utilized daily. Follow-up attitude and attention to detail matter here.
- Is there a consistent safety presence on your job site through active supervision, training, and administrative oversight for all employees? Safety is not a person, it is a shared responsibility?
- Has your workplace been assessed for occupational foot protection needs, with natural and man-made hazards considered -- machinery, chemical, radiation, process handling, and special or unique situations?
- Was input provided from the worker's compensation specialist on the history of foot injuries, with some locations targeted for extra effort to reduce injuries?
- Are the costs of previous injuries known and distributed (with no names) in order to promote awareness and save costs to the company and employees for long-term injuries such as severe fractures, amputations, sprains, falls, etc.?
- Is special attention given to walking and work surfaces with a higher potential for slips, trips, and falls? Does this include unique design features, historic buildings, uneven walking surfaces such as cobblestones, or mixed walking surfaces such as tile to carpet, etc.?
- Is a plan in place for unique situations such as heavily iced walkways, mud or debris from thunderstorms, or wet leaves in walkways that may cause falls?
- Has your evaluation reviewed all in-house workers and remote crews who may have different needs, work conditions, or job hazards? For example, the home office of a major construction company will have different foot protection and walking needs assessments than a concrete crew on site, but either may contribute to an accident.
- Is foot protection made a clear priority to all new employees? Do they understand their responsibilities on the job to use proper foot protection, what the employer will provide, and any accountability each employee has?
- Was your foot protection policy/procedures system designed based on the level and type of hazards at the work site for all work types and shifts? Is it monitored and updated as needed? Is this done by an individual or a committee?
- Does this assessment include compliance for all full-time, part-time, temporary, and volunteer workers and visitors for foot protection, on all shifts and special situations? Do supervisors have input into the assessment? How? Is this documented for every employee?
- Are supervisors aware of all job tasks requiring foot protection? How are they advised of this? Are they supportive of the program? Do they know what is needed and why?
- Are all employees advised as to when to use protective footwear such as boots, safety-toe shoes, etc., and do they know how to use it properly? Is this also true for visitors and contractors? Is administration from the head office included if they are on site?
- After an on-the-job injury, is there an investigation by the supervisor? Is this documented?
- Is every injury followed up consistently by the worker's compensation case manager for care and special needs prior to return to work? Is light duty a possibility?
- Are injured employees apprised of their rights and that they must follow prescribed medical guidance and avoid high-risk activities that may prolong recovery? For example, an injured employee with a broken foot should limit walking as prescribed so as not to aggravate the injury or prolong the recovery.
- Do supervisors review high-hazard situations specifically with employees, such as unusual workplace activities including moving heavy equipment, drilling operations, or extreme walking conditions such as mud?
- Are employees who do not speak English advised about the need for foot protection and where/how to obtain it? About who pays for original and replacement foot protection and the damage an injury can cause? Are all languages on site included?
- Does each employee understand how to get additional information if needed? Whom to ask for assistance? Whom to ask for size/fit problems of PPE?
- Is there a review process for selection/purchase by a member of management to ensure employees are using the most appropriate foot protection item for the task? Are conditions such as slip resistance considered for wet working locations?
- Is the safety committee utilized for evaluation and selection of various foot protection items?
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.