Overcoming Supply Chain Challenges in Protective Footwear

Overcoming Supply Chain Challenges in Protective Footwear

Protective footwear delays are expected to continue throughout 2022 and into 2023.

Over the past year, there have been severe delivery backlogs on many brands of protective footwear. This is an industry-wide challenge, with months-long delays that are expected to continue for the foreseeable future—through 2022 and into 2023. These backlogs are the result of a variety of factors:  

  • Insufficient manufacturing capacity  
  • Global supply chain issues stemming from COVID-19 
  • Shipping delays  
  • Delays from cargo ships waiting to unload  
  • Low staffing levels found throughout the supply chain 

We are two and half years into the pandemic, and still experiencing these supply chain delays. It’s so common that at this point, the delays seem almost unavoidable, regardless of what is being purchased. When these delays impact your workforce—to the point that workers are coming to the jobsite not prepared with the proper footwear and other safety apparel—it can wreak havoc on productivity and your ability to get the job done. The challenges faced by protective footwear wearers have been particularly challenging throughout the pandemic.  

How Have Suppliers Reacted to this Challenge? 

Not all suppliers are alike. We have to acknowledge that while some have struggled mightily in the past few years, others have managed to beat the odds and continue to provide the same level of service, without the extensive delays that have become so common throughout the pandemic. Businesses with a history of growth and success prior to the pandemic were better positioned and more prepared to withstand the challenges and strain that the pandemic placed on all companies.  

Here are some of the ways strong businesses in the protective footwear industry have proactively handled the shortages:  

  • Analyzing demand across the product offering 
  • Identifying slow-moving styles 
  • Making the unusual decision to temporarily halt manufacturing products with low demand 
  • Focusing manufacturing on the most popular styles in their line 

This ensures the boots they are making are more readily available, with more consistent and reliable delivery.  

Similarly, protective footwear distributors are also taking extraordinary steps in the face of manufacturing delays and product delivery backlogs from key suppliers:  

  • Contacting all protective footwear suppliers to determine the impact the supply chain challenges have on each supplier’s product line 
  • Making strategic inventory investments on popular products 
  • Using online tools—such as a “Featured Item” to promote popular products with strong inventory position to online shoppers  
  • In situations where manufacturers have discontinued styles, distributors are notifying wearers of the change and offering up alternatives product options that are available. 

Combined, these steps result in the best possible overall experience for end-users under difficult circumstances being faced industry wide.  

A Roadmap for Supplier Selection—or How to Ensure your Workers are Protected!  

What can you do as a Corporate Safety or OSH professional to ensure a steady supply of footwear to your employees? 

Look for a company with the best chance of filling orders for protective footwear. Seek out suppliers with the common denominators outlined below. This will greatly improve the likelihood that you and your workers will receive footwear on time, so they are protected against on-the-job hazards:  

Strong communication—and relationships with sourcing partners. Never underestimate the power of communication. Companies that meet with suppliers regularly and that have open communication with vendors are the first to find out about impending delays that might have an impact on delivery commitment. By identifying the issue early, your supplier has the ability to come up with a plan to minimize the impact. 

Suppliers with a deep inventory commitment. A company that increases their inventory investment—provided they have the financial resources to do so—is betting that demand will continue and the supply chain won’t be able to keep up. They make the investment to ensure a steady supply of product to their customers, regardless of delays or challenges presented by offshore manufacturing and the impact of Covid-19. You benefit by having access to products on the shelves that might otherwise not be available.  

Near-shore supply chain. Where the manufacturing of products you are buying takes place matters. If the products are made in countries in close proximity to where you’re located, you’re less likely to experience disruption from the backlog being experienced today from lengthy shipments coming across the ocean in container ships, getting delayed in shipping ports. 

Companies that pivoted, handling the challenge of the pandemic successfully early on. All companies faced the same challenges during the pandemic. Some pivoted and were able to maintain momentum and growth despite the global challenges. Companies that were frozen and stuck in place in the early months of the pandemic had a difficult time gaining traction as time wore on. In fact, recently conducted research bears this out: “The key difference between the best and the rest is how successful they were at managing the scarce time, talent and energy of their workforces before Covid-19. Companies that were stars before the pandemic have continued to shine. Those with less stellar performance have struggled mightily.”

In fact, the “best” companies experienced much greater productivity, and were able to more fully leverage the limited resources of time, talent and energy.  

What Does the Future Hold?  

Protective footwear delays are expected to continue throughout 2022 and into 2023. Lockdowns overseas have further exacerbated delays, causing manufacturing shutdowns. This is particularly true in China, where the government has taken an aggressive stance on reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission through lockdowns.  

And, keep in mind that most vendors are focusing on manufacturing the most popular styles, so you are not going to have the broad selection you might otherwise expect, and that we’ve become accustomed to in the U.S.  

So, take the steps needed to ensure your workers are protected: choose a supplier that understands the issues and has proactively taken steps to alleviate the challenges that the industry is facing. Ultimately, your selection of suppliers is likely the single greatest indicator of whether or not your employees will have access to the protective footwear they need to stay safe on-the-job—or not.  

This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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