Put Your Best Foot Forward: How to Choose the Right Boot for the Job
Proper footwear is needed for nearly every occupation and setting, so why not make sure you understand the options?
- By Xavier Kawula
- Apr 01, 2020
Your footwear is the foundation for a productive, safe and comfortable day at work. Employers and workers want to avoid injuries while on the job, and standing for long periods of time can lead to tired, accident-prone feet. Although potentially overlooked by some, protective footwear should be a key element in any occupational health and safety protection program. From finding the best type of footwear for the job to assessing investment value, the following are important things to consider for incorporating essential footwear into your programs for keeping teams happy and healthy.
The Proper Fit
As with any footwear, fit is the most important feature. No matter the quality of materials or excellence of design, a boot that does not match your foot’s particular shape will be unsatisfactory. Things to consider when looking for a boot: do your toes have room to move? Is there noticeable heel slippage? Are the lining materials rough or have heavy seams? Does the insole have too much or too little structure?
Your Occupational Duties, Not Your Occupation
Finding the right shoe shouldn’t be based on occupation, but rather on occupational duties. There are health care professionals that easily put in 10,000 steps a day and those that require more standing tolerance. The former will likely need a shoe similar to what a warehouse worker or first responder might need, and the latter may have more in common with an assembly worker who has a particular station they are required to administer. Looking generically for a nursing or health care shoe may set you down the wrong path. Even in a category like construction, the needs of a foreman are different from that of a roofer, which also differ from a mason. Things to consider include: how active you are, what kinds of surfaces you are working on, and if you need protection from contaminants. These are all very important questions to think through when finding the right boot for daily tasks.
As part of this, it is important that you treat not only your footwear but your workspace with respect. Just because your footwear has been slip-test-rated does not mean you can let your workspace get out of hand.
You need to maintain your surroundings, too. Slip-resistance footwear is just one part of a hazard reduction program, and we all need to make sure that maintenance takes place in both what we wear and where we are working.
Slip resistance is a very important part of a safety shoe and something that all workers should look for. However, a rating that can cause a lot of aggravation is slip rating. Many products will say they are slip resistant or call out their slip resistance as “fair,” “good” or use another subjective term.
If you are truly looking for footwear to be compliant to a Slip Hazard Assessment Plan, it is important to be able to review the manufacturer’s actual slip scores in the standardized tests. The current standard for slip-resistant testing is the SATRA, which is a whole shoe test. Older tests were designed to test the floor, not the shoe, and are considered obsolete.
Look for an SRC slip-rated outsole when looking for superior slip performance. If an outsole has a passing score on the Slip Resistance A test—like soapy water on quarry tile—it can be labeled SRA. If an outsole has a passing score on the Slip Resistance B test—like glycerol on stainless steel—it can be labeled SRB. If it passes both tests, it can be labeled as SRC.
Safety Toe, Plate and Met Guards
While many people might regard composite or carbon fiber toes as superior to steel or alloy toes, just because the materials are newer does not mean that they have superior safety attributes. As with most things, they present the consumer with additional options for wear that depend on the environment in which they work. The test for toes is pass/fail so one cannot claim to be ultimately superior to another. While the tests for CSA and ASTM differ slightly, generally any toe that passes one will pass the other. Following is a list of safety toe options and their benefits.
Composite Fiberglass/ Carbon Fiber are non-metallic fibers suspended in a plastic resin. The main benefit of these non-metallic toes is that they conduct heat and cold slower and do not have a magnetic signature. As such, workers in cold environments or those concerned with magnetic signature—security, nuclear power plants, smelters, and MRI machines—will choose this option.
Aluminum Alloy Toes are generally also non-magnetic and good for security and are the lightest weight of the three generally available toes.
Steel Toes are also available, but you may ask: why would someone choose a steel toe when more advanced, lighter compounds are available? The weight difference between steel and the alternate is about 45 grams, or about eight quarters. This is significant in your hand, but in context of the footwear, the weight is worth considering in a sneaker or a shoe, but less of a concern in a logger or a 10-welted pull on.
Similarly, there are options in plates, with different materials depending on occupational needs.
Non-Metallic plates are similar to composite toes. These are non-metallic fiber boards that provide protection without metal, so workers who are concerned magnetics should start here.
Steel Plates are ideal for waste management workers, and occupations with a lot of brads or needles would likely stick to a steel toe for protection. Over time thinner nails can slowly work their way through the fiber boards, whereas steel is more secure.
Additionally, metatarsal protection is always the special province of the safety manager. There are both external and internal mets to choose from.
Internal Mets are generally more comfortable and less prone to snag and cause a trip and fall hazard, however some see them as more prone to hold onto the damaging blow as they have more friction than a correctly designed External Met.
External Mets have the higher incidence of snag, trip and fall, but they have the trade-off of shedding the blow better.
Chemical and Environmental Protection
Protection from oil, acid and chemical resistance is critical in many occupational duties. Almost all rubber has synthetic (i.e. petroleum-based) rubber as part of the recipe for its manufacture. As such, all work rubber needs to be made with additional compounds that improve its performance in petroleum. Otherwise, the rubber will absorb oil and swell. Chemical and acid resistance are difficult to generalize as there are so many types, and often it’s determined that the problematic solvent was in the cleaning supplies instead of the initial product. Always seed and test products in the field to make sure they live up to expectations.
Cost over Time
Often when we are shopping for boots, we only focus on the initial sticker price, and don’t take into account such things as average wear time or time to failure. A $40 boot may seem like a value compared to a more expensive option, but if you go through four or five during the lifespan of one quality boot, the costs differences get closer, and the one quality boot hasn’t caused you any discomfort. Higher-end manufacturers take a lot of things into consideration to make sure you are getting true quality from what you spend. Manufacturers look at where the high-wear, high-flex and high-stress areas of the boot exist, and how to mitigate damage through material and design changes.
Line Structure/Ease of Assortment
When you begin a relationship with a brand, you are creating access not only to the one or two products that you are purchasing but also to the entire line. If the boot you are buying is the only thing you would ever buy from that company, it will be a one-off with little room to create economies of scale. Some companies really just offer one boot, limiting the scope and scale of business.
What you put on your feet is a part of your entire safety net while on the job, so be sure to invest in quality, fit, comfort and the protective features you and your team need while on the job. As part of any occupational health and safety program, be sure that footwear is a top consideration to ensure workers are set up for success.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.