Footwear is Essential PPE for Workers

Footwear is Essential PPE for Workers

Footwear is a significant part of protection for workers that requires several components to make it as effective as possible.

Footwear is the foundation of any safety and protection program. While employers and workers want to avoid injuries while on the job, standing for long periods of time can lead to tired, accident-prone feet. There are key features to consider when looking for the right footwear. Ahead, we will outline select considerations for footwear that will keep you protected while on the jobsite.

Slip Resistance

Slip resistance, or traction, is a feature that is very important to consider. Selecting appropriate, slip-resistant footwear can be challenging, as there is a lot of industry frustration and confusion around slip ratings. It is critical to understand which ratings are most relevant to specific tasks and job categories. 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 looking for footwear to be compliant to a Slip Hazard Assessment Plan, it is important to request and review the manufacturer’s actual slip scores in the standardized tests. The current standard for slip-resistant testing is the SATRA, which is a more holistic shoe test. Older tests that were designed to test the floor, not the shoes, are considered obsolete.

We suggest looking for a SATRA rating of SRA for most wearing occasions and an SRC slip rated outsole when looking for best-in-class slip performance. If an outsole has a passing score on the Slip Resistance A test—soapy water on quarry tile—it can be labeled SRA. If an outsole has a passing score on the Slip Resistance B test—glycerol on stainless steel—it can be labeled SRB. If it passes both tests, it can be labeled SRC.

Toe Type: Steel Toe or Composite

Toe types make a big difference and should be chosen carefully based on the task at hand (or foot.) Steel is the heaviest safety toe material, but often offers a sleeker profile as it’s more compact. Steel toe boots are the traditional choice, but there are other, non-metallic options such as composite toe boots. Composite has no magnetic signature and transfers cold slower than metals, so it will lend more comfort to the wearer in colder environments. As with most things, the toe type presents additional options for wear depending upon the environment in which you work. The test for toe protection 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. The 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 than metal and don’t have a magnetic signature. As such, workers in cold environments or those concerned with magnetic signature—security, nuclear power plants, smelters and MRI machines—should choose this option.
  • Aluminum Alloy Toes are generally also non-magnetic and good for security. These are often the lightest weight of the three generally available safety toe options.
  • Steel Toes are also available, but you may ask why someone would choose a steel toe when more advanced, lighter compounds are available. The weight difference between steel and the alternative is about 45 grams (or about 8 quarters) in weight amount. Dependent on the use case and wearer, this may or may not be a significant amount of weight.

Waterproofness: Non-waterproof, Seam-Sealed versus Bagged

Waterproof footwear is nice to have, but if you perspire a lot, you may have dampness in your boots from your own sweat before any outside water even penetrates. Bagged products cost more than just seam-sealed ones, but tend to last longer and protect the feet more if you tend to sweat a lot. This choice is dependent upon the job at hand and your body’s comfort level in the conditions that you are working in.

Rubber and PVC

Rubber and PVC are high performance materials that have many applications in work boots. Due to their signature chemical nature, they respond differently to compounds found in the workplace. As a result, we recommend always testing products in the field to see how it performs not only with the contaminating chemicals, but also the ones that are the counter-agents. Neoprene refers to a family of synthetic rubber that can be used in both liquid and foamed executions. The liquid form is used in lines where boots are dipped in liquid neoprene and then vulcanized. This results in an upper section with no exposed seams. The neoprene can also be foamed with a blowing agent, resulting in a material used in wet-suits. The benefit of this foamed version is that it is naturally insulating and cushioning.

Proper Fit for Your Foot

As with any footwear, fit is the most important feature. No matter the quality of materials or excellence in design, a boot that does not match your foot’s particular shape will be unsatisfactory. Things to consider when looking for a boot are:

  • Do your toes have room to move?
  • Is there noticeable heel slippage?
  • Are the lining materials rough
  • Do the lining materials have heavy seams?
  • Does the insole have too much or too little structure?

Once you find a boot or shoe that fits properly, the next step should be to look for the protective elements you need.

Value Over Time

It is important to look beyond the price tag and consider value or longevity. A less expensive boot may seem great at first, but how long will it last? Probably not very long. A more expensive boot where the manufacturer develops the boot with wearer protection in mind, likely takes into consideration where the high-wear, high-flex and high-stress areas of the boot exist, and how to mitigate damage through material and design choices. Higher-end manufacturers take a multitude of variables into consideration to make sure the customer is getting true quality, comfort, protection and fit from what they spend.

On the Horizon: New Innovations

Over time, innovations evolve, allowing for even more protection and comfortable footwear for the jobsite. We are seeing a lot of new developments in outsole compounds and design. New information on how lugs perform on site gives insight into better and longer-lasting outsole design.

We are also seeing updates in climate control. Workers are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of how to protect themselves from the cold. In the past, people have looked for temperature ratings, thinking that more is always best. Instead, we are seeing a trend to look for climate control in the boots rather than simple insulation. High insulation values that cause the wearer to perspire create a worse condition than the cold itself. Human perspiration condenses and pulls even more heat out of the body, especially when the wearer goes from an active to inactive state.

Lastly, we are seeing innovation in ergonomic design. Footwear design and production often err on the side of simplified production, as the boots are mass produced versus custom made. The goal of the near future of boot making will be to deliver a product that has a customized fit with no break-in time.


Finding the right shoe or boot is about finding the right fit and protection for your specific duties while on the job. Based on these duties, some may need to focus more on slip resistance, while others will need to more heavily consider climate control and breathability. It is therefore important to evaluate the overall need, calling into account different environments to determine which features are most important.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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