We constantly fight non-approved shoes in the workplace.

Walking the Walk on Occupational Foot Protection

Make decisions that work. If you have an area with a slick floor, look at a range of solutions and whether additional problems will be created by solving one.

Bloody footprints after an injury, worn finishes, damaged shoes, inappropriate footwear for the job environment -- these and other conditions can cause employees to trip, slip, and fall. If you have a job site, chances are you have a footwear protection issue. It is time to think about how we support our companies' occupational foot protection initiatives and, remember, it's more than shoes. Occupational foot protection covers anything that helps your employee succeed in the workplace and go home without injury. How does your work site rate? Do you have all of the support items in place, such as BBP and cleaning resources and polices, ergonomics, a sound inspection program, and hazard abatement methods to resolve and make changes? Are your managers truly on board?

"The weird always happens here!" Every worker's comp administrator says that at least once per quarter. (Safety managers say it daily!) Each workplace has specific issues and weirdness surrounding foot protection, too, and often we resolve problems in the midst of the actual crisis. Our foot protection issues may be physical, procedural, or PPE failure. They may come from ignorance or apathy. Some employees intentionally get injured to stay out of work and collect supplemental insurance. Even simple utility or plumbing issues can cause problems, such as the potential for MSRA, raw sewage when an employee tracks contamination through the workplace and into vehicles and home, etc.

We also constantly fight non-approved shoes in the workplace. Not just cheaply made, ill-fitting shoes, but damaged, inappropriate shoes that can cause injury and falls. Look closely at your injury log and treatments and you will find several serious issues quickly.

Tomorrow, I suggest you stand behind your employees as they enter the workplace. Look closely at their shoes. What do you see? Worn-down heels? Backs of shoes cut down with a razor? Fray, damaged, wet shoes? Loose strings dragging? Employees wearing the wrong size, so they have to take extra steps like a toddler wearing dad's shoes? Is it any wonder falls and ankle injuries are so prevalent?

I have seen foot fungus issues from maintenance staff wearing damp boots instead of letting them dry because they are provided only one pair of safety footwear a year and do not allow them to fully dry out after stormwater or sewage exposure. I've recommended two folks be evaluated by a physical therapist, and we learned one had a leg that was naturally 1/4 inch longer than the other, which was causing the falls. So we explained how to use a gel lift and stopped the problems (not worker’s comp, but great prevention). Without actually watching the employees, these potential costly injuries would not have been discovered.

Evaluating Potential Solutions
Make decisions that work. If you have an area with a slick floor, look at a range of solutions and whether additional problems will be created by solving one. For example, in our surgical suites, we looked at two solutions to the slick floors. One was better, non-slip shoe coverings. The second was a slip-resistant coating for the floor. We recommended better-quality shoe coverings because wherever the non-slip coating ended at the doorway, that spot would become an automatic "slip and slide" for unsuspecting workers. So far, the shoe coverings have worked better and are not overly expensive.

I also recommend the safety do some education for employees, explaining how to sanitize shoes etc before going home and exposing family, pets, etc.

Evaluate unusual situations for solutions. For example, to solve cords for portable equipment in dark areas, try the new lighted cord cover so that employees will not fall. One example is with a portable endoscopy machine; advise employees and evaluate how it fits into the work being done. Ask for employee feedback, and they will tell you when it works or if there’s a failure. The price for these accommodations? Much less than one fall, broken wrist, or physical therapy session.

Do the math and save the budget. Make injury costs and savings a line item by department to make sure managers are aware and doing their share for injury prevention. Publish the numbers; you will see results, and upper management will notice.

Assessing Your Current Program
How can you improve your program? Double-check it program to see where changes are needed, making sure to include your safety committee and your management team. It matters on all levels.

Here are some items to consider:

  • Admit your program is not perfect, up to date, or functional. No program is comprehensive, there is always room for improvement. Giving up is not an option, and improvements often take time. Prioritize, regroup, and go forth.
  • 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 even 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 the final item 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. Know your costs and the gains you can accomplish.
  • 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 upfront that 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. Be consistent and persistent. Safety folk pester really well!
  • Advise all employees. Use what works – written pieces, coaching, toolbox talks, posters, paycheck stuffers, raffles, games. Repeat often. Emphasize what happens if they show up for work without correct PPE (if that is your policy and you actually enforce it). 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. And so on. (Discuss with HR personnel what actions you can do, and let them guide you.)
  • Educate, educate, educate on why this is important and who is affected, from the temp wearing worn-out loafers to the maintenance vendor wearing sneakers. Make sure your management team knows specifically what accident costs and the types of accidents your company has had previously, such as amputations. Be honest and graphic.
  • Explain the use and limitations of the PPE for their job. Ensure this is in your new employee orientation. Pull in team leaders and supervisors for this duty, as they are the most knowledgeable on specifics.
  • Have it in writing who pays for foot protection items and how much will be paid. Include replacements and how often for worn or damaged items. Share this information with those applying for jobs, too, and explain when they will be expected to wear PPE, how to replace and repair it, etc.

Foot protection is only one of a huge set of programs and guidelines we are accountable for. As safety professionals, whether new on the job or seasoned warhorses, we spend a lot of time in researching, selecting, and providing information on the right PPE for the job, no matter what it is.

In the case of occupational foot protection, the industry has developed a wide variety and selection of all things related to it, from well-fitting and comfortable footwear designs to durable materials and product availability, with reasonable pricing and needed protection.

Related industries have thrived, providing floor coatings to reduce slick walking surfaces, treads for stairs or deckways, and high-visibility paint for hazards not easily noticed that could cause a slip, trip, or fall. If you need an item that seems unique, do some research and chances are, it is already available or one of the big vendors can adapt a product to fit your need at a reasonable cost. But you have to ask, and you have to follow up, maybe several times. Many corrections are made and then not followed through (such as slip-resistant coatings), and such a situation can create hazards after the original prevention.

It is critical that you make occupational foot protection a line item on the budget and keep the interest high for all managers. Unless the costs of injuries and prevention is real and not some abstract number for only the bean counters, the high costs of workplace injuries that are preventable will never be real to line managers or employees. Liability is only real when it applies to the person involved -- the rest of us are just spectators. So it is with many large and small safety programs; it is the safety pro's problem to solve, not the department or line manger. They push the liability and accountability away so that each individual does not own the responsibility for safety on the job. And many safety pros get weary and worn down and allow it and hide in a dimly lit office.

It is tedious, hateful, aggravating, and constant work to keep a sound occupational foot protection program progressing. As the facility safety pro, it is your choice to "walk the walk" or hide in a corner (or a variation of each). Ask yourself what you have done today to improve, educate, and increase compliance? Then ask yourself all the things you could have done to prevent that broken ankle or two busted front teeth from a preventable fall.

Be Proactive and Make a Difference
Our workers are great people and deserve to work as injury free as possible. We also can help by being positive, consistent, and proactive in solving problems, not diverting them to others. Listen to your employees, your worker's comp administrator, and even the budget folks to find out about real problems that you can solve. As safety, we focus on the negative so much when the real safety issue is we want our employees to go home safely. Of course we want to save money, etc., but the real asset is our people. They deserve the best, and today's safety manager is exactly that . . . the best.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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