Selecting the Right Shoe Can Make All the Difference

Test results demonstrate that an employee is indeed safer while wearing a pair of safety-toed shoes.

Personal protective equipment should always be the final step in reducing exposure to workplace hazards, and that also stands true when implementing a safety shoe program. Foot-related injuries are a common workplace injury, causing significant morbidity, disability, and lost wages. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that greater than 60 percent of all injuries are musculoskeletal related, 10 percent of which are specifically foot and ankle injuries.

OSHA's federal regulation 1910.136 regarding foot protection provides limited guidance to employers, stating that employees shall use protective footwear “when working in areas where there is a danger of foot injuries due to falling or rolling objects, or objects piercing the sole, or when the use of protective footwear will protect the affected employee from an electrical hazard. . . ." In short, employers are tasked with completing a hazard assessment to determine whether foot protection is required and, if so, they must meet stringent standards (i.e., ASTM International F2412 and F2413).

Steel- and composite-toed shoes are the commonly accepted method of foot protection, however, there is little published information regarding the actual level of protection afforded. A common belief is that safety shoes are actually more dangerous than regular footwear because the safety toe, when/if crushed by a significant amount of weight, will amputate the section of foot underneath. The belief is so pervasive that an orthopedic surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the popular TV show "Myth Busters" completed studies to quantify the benefit of safety shoes. The weights used in each study exceeded ASTM testing requirements.

What do you think the results were?

The Massachusetts General study dropped 150 pounds from a height of 3 feet onto five pairs each of safety-toed and non-safety toed shoes. Cadaver lower extremities were used to simulate the injuries incurred during each event. The results showed that feet in the regular boots sustained on average 8.2 fractures per foot, while feet in safety shoes sustained 3.2 fractures per foot, a reduction in severity of 67 percent.

The "Myth Busters" study dropped 75-and 400-pound weights from 3 and 6 feet, respectively, onto safety-toed shoes containing a clay foot to measure compressive force and damage. This test method was identical to ASTM requirements. No compressive forces registered, and only minor deformation to the steel plate resulted from the 3-foot drop of 75 pounds. When dropping 400 pounds from 6 feet, the compressive forces deformed the steel plate and resulted in significant foot fractures. The "Myth Busters" test did not generate any amputations.

"Myth Busters" also tested regular shoes and the safety-toed option to total failure using an arbor press. Failure of the toe box was reached at 1,200 pounds for the non-safety toed shoe, whereas safety shoe withstood up to 6,000 pounds of compression before failing.

These results demonstrate that an employee is indeed safer while wearing a pair of safety-toed shoes than the same pair without. While safety shoes will not completely prevent injury, they will reduce the potential for injury when exposed to minor compressive forces (weights less than 75 pounds) and greatly reduce the severity of the injury when exposed to significant amounts of compressive force.

Tips for Selecting Safety Footwear
As the results show, effectiveness is paramount to minimizing injury, and therefore selection plays an integral role in performance. There are multiple factors to consider when selecting the most appropriate foot protection. The goal is to make sure that your feet are comfortable, supported, and, most importantly, SAFE! The hazards associated with workplace footwear are not only falling objects or fork trucks rolling over toes, but also discomfort due to improper fit and selection.

Choosing the appropriate safety shoe could prevent foot-related problems such as bunions, corns, calluses, hammertoes, and even prevent discomfort to the legs, hips, and back.

With many potential negative consequences to consider if the incorrect shoes are chosen, consider these three tips when selecting your next pair.

1. Safety is #1 and should be the initial consideration when selecting the correct pair of protective footwear. There are many options in the market, but you should choose a pair that will protect your feet from the hazards to which you may be exposed. A combination of safety toe caps, metatarsal guards (protection for the top of the foot), steel plate soles (puncture resistance), sole material (slip resistance, electrical insulation, flexibility and durometer of rubber), and overall materials used in shoe construction should be considered when making your selection.

2. Fit is very important. Did you know that the human foot actually grows during the day and shrinks while you sleep? While that's not entirely true, everyone’s feel are actually larger after a hard day's work, which means the end of the day is the best time to try on a potential new pair of shoes or boots. With so many options on the market, make sure that the padding and materials used are adequate for your work climate. Utilizing a shoe with moisture control technology for both warm and cold climates is a great option but will affect how your shoe fits. Making sure your new shoes fit well is key to preventing future discomfort.

3. Comfort is a must! The majority of quality brands of safety shoes and boots will not break in or stretch due to the types of materials used to ensure proper support and foot protection. Make sure that when you’re test driving potential footwear, your feet are comfortable. Areas of comfort include appropriate space in the toe box, no pinching or cramping at the ball of the foot or toes area, and adequate support in the arch and heel. When feet are comfortable, your knees hips and lower back are better aligned and supported.

Be aware that no footwear can provide protection against all injuries. The primary methods of injury reduction are controlling hazards by elimination, engineering controls, and administrative controls. Relying on PPE alone is not acceptable. However, by making sure that you are selecting the correct shoe for your work environment and personal needs, you will provide yourself the best personal protection for preventing foot-related injuries, should other controls fail.

Additional information on safety footwear is available from several online sites, including The American Orthopedic Food and Ankle Society1, Workingperson.me2, and OSHA3.

References
1. http://www.aofas.org/footcaremd/how-to/footwear/Pages/10-Points-for-Purchasing-Protective-Footwear.aspx
2. http://workingperson.me/2011/10/24/effective-fit-and-selection-of-safety-footwear/
3. https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=INTERPRETATIONS&p_id=28979
4. http://kwc.org/mythbusters/2005/11/episode_42_steel_toe_amputatio.html

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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