Safety Shoes Make the Outfit for Well-Protected Workers

Safety Shoes Make the Outfit for Well-Protected Workers

When you are wearing safety shoes, you are more likely to be protected from common hazards. 

Do you remember the first time you were required to wear safety or steel toe shoes? You likely complied by purchasing a pair without really thinking about how and why they would protect you. Before the term personal protective equipment (PPE) came to be, workers during the industrial revolution were already inventing ways to protect themselves. French and British farmers wore sabots, hallowed out wooden shoes to protect their feet. These shoes protected them from falling objects and famously became known because workers threw their sabots into production machinery during protests. This is how the word sabotage came into existence.

True safety shoes appeared in the 1940s when German soldiers in WWII were issued boots with reinforced metal toecaps. After this time, safety shoes became prevalent with workers in many countries. Then in 1970, the U.S. established the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which gave the Federal government the authority to set and enforce health and safety standards for American workers.

OSHA Requirements Today

OSHA outlines foot protection requirements in standard 29 CFR 1910.132 and 1910.136. The general requirements state that “The employer shall ensure that each affected employee uses 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, such as a static-discharge or electric-shock hazard, that remains after the employer takes other necessary protective measures.”

OSHA suggests protective footwear be worn in situations involving the following dangers:

  • corrosive or poisonous materials
  • electrical hazards
  • static electricity that could cause an explosion
  • heavy objects that could roll onto feet
  • sharp objects that could puncture the foot
  • molten metal that could splash onto feet
  • hot or slippery surfaces

Why and How They Protect You

There are many occupational hazards for feet. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 53,000-foot injuries per year leading to missed work days. This means that on average, 4.8 individuals per 10,000 full-time workers are missing work due to foot injuries. While foot injuries affect workers of all ages, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says injuries to the foot most frequently occur in workers in the 16-19 age range.

When you are wearing safety shoes, you are more likely to be protected from falling and flying objects, punctures, machinery that cuts (e.g., chainsaws), electric shock, slips, trips and falls. Safety shoes can also help prevent fatigue, burns and even offer weather protection for those at risk of frost bite and hypothermia.

Styles of Safety Shoes

We’ve come a long way since wooden sabots. Today, workers have options ranging from trendy styles to rugged protective footwear.

Boot style. These safety shoes provides ankle support and is often the most protective, can be waterproof or water resistant. Some are also insulated for cold weather work.

Sneaker style. Safety shoes that are known for being the lightest, cheapest, most comfortable option for safety shoes. They are very slip resistant and breathe well to keep your feet cool.

Office style. Some employees, especially supervisors or corporate workers, find office shoe style safety shoes to be the best protective option for them. They are light, comfortable and versatile for transitioning between the facility and office. Office safety shoes also offer great support.

Alloy, Composite and Steel—Oh My!

The protective component of safety shoes can be made from a variety of materials. The most current technologies include the following:

Composite toe shoes. Composite toe shoes are made from strong non-metal materials like Kevlar, carbon fiber, plastic or fiberglass. The benefits of these shoes are:

  • Lighter weight makes the boots more comfortable to wear for longer periods
  • Metal free
  • Prevents sparking
  • Offers thermal insulation

The only real con to this shoe type is that they tend to run a little bulkier.

Steel toe shoes. Steel toe shoes include an internal toe box made of heavy-duty steel. The benefits of these are:

  • The strongest toe protection available
  • Toe is thinner than composite, creating a less bulky shoe
  • Less expensive to manufacture

Cons of steel toe shoes include:

  • Heavy (while it is just a few grams more, steel is heavier than either composite or alloy)
  • Can dent
  • Colder in winter
  • Conducts electricity (so not ideal for workers in the electrical field)
  • Sets off metal detectors

Alloy toe shoes. Alloy toe shoes are made from aluminum or titanium. Benefits of these alloy toe shoes are:

  • Thinner than steel toe
  • 30 - 50 percent lighter than steel toe
  • More toe-room

Cons include:

  • More expensive than steel toe
  • Not as strong as a steel toe
  • Conducts electricity (so not ideal for workers in the electrical field)
  • Sets off metal detectors

Things to Consider When Buying Safety Shoes

Try on both shoes. Sixty percent of the population have different sized feet, according to Brannock Device, so it is important to buy the size that fits the bigger foot. Also, when trying on shoes, don’t expect the material to stretch. Buy the size that fits today and is most comfortable the first time you try it on. Consider insoles that offer shock absorption qualities to keep your feet feeling good on long days.

A Word About Metatarsal Guards

Metatarsal guards are an extra feature that offer additional protection to the top of the foot. Because they cover from the end of the steel toe box to the ankle, they are a great option when there is risk of falling objects from above. Some metatarsal guards are external to the safety shoe, and some are integrated internally.

Putting Safety Shoes to the Test

Last year Travis Spagnolo, a Safex Health and Safety Consultant in Ohio, conducted an experiment with a steel manufacturing client. He wanted to demonstrate the importance and effectiveness of different safety shoes. The steel workers fabricated some extra scrap steel into a guillotine-type contraption to make a controlled drop of heavy steel. They stuffed pairs of regular, steel toe and metatarsal protected boots, with hot dogs inside them and went to town with the experiment. Here is what they learned when they dropped the metal on the boots:

  • Hot dogs severed completely with the shoes with no protection. Ouch!
  • Steel toe also severed all hot dogs. The force of the 80 pounds of falling steel concentrated directly onto the steel toe damaged the protective toe, compressed it down and severed the hot dogs.
  • The boots with the metatarsal guard were the most effective. It took a few tries and the right angle to finally cut through all the hot dogs completely. Although a metatarsal guard may not prevent all foot injuries, the right type of foot protection can lessen the severity of injury when heavy or rolling material crashes down onto the top of the foot.

This real-life demonstration proved to that audience, and hopefully you, that safety shoes are an essential piece of PPE for the workforce. Something as simple as footwear can ensure a healthy future of mobility and prosperity.

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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