Ankle guards should be another box to put on the checklist when choosing appropriate footwear. (D30® photo)

Footwear That Goes the Extra Mile

Assessing the credibility of a brand is just as important as looking at the durability of the product.

When you think about protective footwear or protection in a safety boot, the first thought tends to be, "Does it have toe caps?" But when selecting the right safety boot that is fit for purpose, there are many more options and features to consider, and finding the appropriate solution can be confusing in a crowded marketplace.

According to the respected British-based Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists (SCPOD), the average person walks the equivalent of five times around the Earth in a lifetime. And in simple walking, each step can exert up to two times a person's body weight in ground reaction force through the lower limbs. This means that an average 140-pound person will have between 210 and 280 pounds of impact going through the heel on heel-strike alone.

Similarly, the importance of the relationship between comfortable, lightweight protective footwear and productivity is well known in military circle. The British Army uses the mantra: "One pound on the foot is five pounds on the back." It goes without saying that the smart manager selecting footwear provisions should check the experience and applications of potential footwear partners. Assessing the credibility of a brand is just as important as looking at the durability of the product.

Industrial footwear is a necessity in certain industries, such as construction, oil and gas, steel, military, and defense. In these markets, all footwear must meet the appropriate ASTM standard, but what should you be looking for when selecting the appropriate footwear to safeguard the feet of workers?

Toe caps are the mainstay of any protective boot and are primarily used for those working with heavy objects, machinery, or anything else that runs the risk of being dropped on the feet. Consideration must also be given to the risk of injury to the rest of the foot and the body. As well affecting foot injuries, incorrect footwear also can result in fatigue, knee and hip pain, and other musculoskeletal conditions, such as back pain. It is imperative to look at not just one specific component, but also to ensure that the whole boot, not just the toe cap, will help to prevent or reduce the risk of serious injury to an employee.

Using 'Smart Materials'
Part of the ASTM standard with regard to industrial footwear relates to metatarsal guards. In 2016, the standard for "met guards" is due to change, and it is important for companies to review the components of any industrial boot to be sure they meet the incoming criteria.

Traditionally, met guards have been produced in either metal or rigid plastic. Using such materials means it can be difficult to fully integrate into relevant footwear, and comfort issues come into play due to a lack of flexibility. The problem of uncomfortable and inflexible apparel and the subsequent non-compliance of workers wearing the correct safety gear is an issue that affects more than the industrial workwear sector; many parallels can be drawn with the sports industry.

Sports has long been a market that strives to be at the forefront of technology applications, particularly when it comes to impact protection and shock-absorbing materials, and "smart materials" has been a buzzword in this arena for many years. Many global sport brands have adopted proven technology and materials into their protection equipment. The innovations—whether it be helmet liners for football, lacrosse, or baseball helmets; shock-absorbing base layers; or midsoles as used in sneakers—the common theme is to develop comfortable, flexible, and durable solutions while maintaining a reputation for performance.

These developments and subsequent cross-fertilization of ideas has allowed companies to develop met guards, ankle guards, heel inserts, insoles, and midsoles that can be incorporated into various branded industrial footwear, ensuring soft, flexible, and comfortable solutions while maintaining superior impact protection. Where necessary, they help industrial footwear brands offer higher protection values and meet the appropriate standards, not just in the United States, but also in more stringent markets across the world.

Elements of Protective Footwear
But it is not just high-impact hazards that pose a threat to workers' feet. A casual knock around the side of the foot and ankle can have a debilitating effect, so ankle guards should be another box to put on the checklist when choosing appropriate footwear.

What lies beneath cannot be ignored, either. Inflammation of the calcaneus (heel bone) is common among workers who spend a lot of time on their feet. For many, standing or walking on hard floors for long periods of time also results in limb fatigue and other foot-related issues; therefore, the insole of footwear is also very important, whether that be the insole that is already encompassed in the protective boot or adding a supportive insole that also stimulates circulation in the soles of the feet in order to reduce fatigue as well as reduce injury to the knee and hips.

It is also good to check that the material of the insoles will protect the forces coming up; again, smart materials are changing the face of insoles, allowing the foot to be protected from forces coming up from the ground and not just impacts from above.

In an ideal world, managers selecting their protective footwear solutions should look for the following:

Above the foot:

  • What additional safety above-the-foot protection does the boots have – for example toe caps, met and ankle guards?
  • Do the additional components offer proven superior impact protection and/or shock absorption properties?
  • Is the boot lightweight and fit for purpose?

Underfoot:

  • Does it offer comfort, support, and performance – not just to the foot, but the whole body?
  • Is there protection from forces coming up through the sole?
  • What is the impact pressure distribution, dynamic pressure attenuation and acceleration control of the insole?

General guidance:

  • Does the boot meet the required standard and fit for purpose?
  • What standard does it meet—just the U.S. standard, or does it also meet the more stringent European standards?
  • Ensure the brand you select is established and is one that continues to research and develop superior impact-protection options.
  • Test the boot for comfort. If a boot is not comfortable, there is a risk of non-compliance or wearer fatigue that could result in the employee putting himself at a bigger risk of injury.

By carefully analyzing footwear options and investing in the correct footwear to protect your workforce, companies will reap the benefits in the long term thanks to happy employees with happy feet.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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