Ensuring Safety with Quality Footwear
There are four key factors to keep in mind when choosing the right safety footwear for workers.
- By Tito Warren
- Mar 01, 2023
Safety footwear provides the foundation for workers on the job: their feet keep them moving, keep them working and allow for responsibilities like lifting, standing and building to take place without a hitch. So, when building a safety program, you may ask yourself: How do I use footwear to best ensure the safety and productivity of my employees?
There are so many best practices to keep in mind when it comes to safety that it can be challenging to decide where to start. I’ve identified a handful of focus areas that lay a strong foundation for any program.
Let’s explore the four key factors you should think about when developing or updating your safety and PPE programs this year.
Fit Comes First
A work boot that doesn’t fit well isn’t as safe as it could be.
When we consider safety footwear, we’re looking at things like specifications, style, materials and brand reputation. Each of these crucial factors makes a difference, but if the boot doesn’t fit correctly, that will undermine all of the rest of these considerations.
Poorly fitted footwear can be the cause of injuries to the feet, legs and back thanks to muscle strain, ankle sprains, slips, trips and falls, lack of balance and overcompensating with a different body area.1 When a boot fits well, it’s reliable. You know that you’re able to perform the duties on the job without feeling the need to overcompensate.
For example, if an employee is unloading building materials from a truck, they need to be able to rely on their safety footwear to keep them steady. If they are wearing a boot that is too large, the employee is at a higher risk for a slip, trip or fall, or the boot may cause lower back strain by making the worker overcompensate for an unsteady stance. They’ve now compromised their own safety and may not be able to complete the job, creating a larger ripple effect on the work site.
Even outside of outright injuries, poorly fitted work boots can lead to increased fatigue and long-term ramifications such as knee problems, joint pain and poor circulation. Increased fatigue throughout the day leading to decreased situational awareness can create the circumstances for an accident even when an injury is not the cause.
So how do you ensure a safe fit? Options. The safest fit for everyone won’t be the same, which means that your PPE program should include a variety of options tailored to the following factors:
Width. Offering a variety of boot-width options is a crucial piece of ensuring workers are wearing the right size for them. Often, those with wide feet will size up to a larger fit in order to compensate for the extra room needed. Although this solution may work with traditional shoes, with work boots, it leaves the employee’s feet vulnerable to hazards as the front of the foot may not be as protected by the safety toe. New technologies have the ability to take a 3D model of a worker’s foot, which is used to recommend their ideal work boot size, width and any additional foot support with incredible accuracy.
Sizes. While most workers may fall into a specific size range, provide a boot that works for every employee. Be sure to offer half-sizes in your PPE program as well as those sizes that fall on either end of the spectrum. Even minor discrepancies in sizing can increase the chance of injury.
Inclusivity. We’ve seen women rely on men’s options for PPE for far too long. Historically, their choices have been limited. In order to ensure safety for all, a safety program should offer options. For example, a woman’s foot is built differently from arch to heel than a man’s foot. Offering options that are built for this higher arch will increase comfort and decrease both discomfort and chances of injury.
Prioritizing well-fitting footwear in your PPE program not only protects your workers on a day-to-day basis but also protects their health in the long term, promoting a strong, reliable workforce that supports crucial industries.
Materials make the difference when it comes to safety footwear, and new innovations are being introduced at a rapid pace that not only make the shoes safer but also more comfortable.
One of the biggest improvements is footwear that feels lightweight but still performs under tough conditions. Non-metallic safety toe caps are an example of a feature that noticeably lightens the weight of a boot while offering the same safety protections as the standard steel toe caps—in fact, laboratory and field trials show that non-metallic toe caps can meet identical safety standards to steel toe caps. Lighter weight and less bulk mean more all-day comfort, less fatigue and less pain for workers.
A boot made with best-in-class materials will not only protect the wearer more effectively but will also withstand a longer period of wear. Keeping workers in their perfect work boots for longer ensures that they have PPE that is comfortable, broken in and familiar to them. The less often employees need to replace their boots, the more cost-effective the program is for both the company and the individual.
Weather Any Conditions
Many are currently in the midst of cold, rainy or snowy winters, but the work never stops for those in industries such as manufacturing, construction and mining. While the importance of this work doesn’t change, their work environment certainly does—and a quality safety program will take these variations in weather conditions into consideration.
When it comes to winter safety footwear, keep these features in mind:
Waterproofing systems. Rainfall and wet snow can easily turn a normal work day into an uncomfortable, unsafe situation. To ensure feet stay dry no matter the conditions, ensure their boots have a quality waterproofing system. A three-layer waterproofing system provides everything workers need: a lining to help move moisture away from the foot, open-cell foam that provides an additional layer of cushioning and makes for a comfortable fit and a waterproof bootie to act as a barrier to water and snow.
High-quality outsoles. With the cold comes ice, which can increase a worker’s chance of falling and injuring themselves. Outsoles will tri-directional traction lugs can improve grip and are ideally paired with a defined heel breast to enhance downhill braking control on rough terrain.
Warming materials. Insulation is your best defender against the cold. Work boots with innovative, paper-thin aluminum technology surround feet to reflect and retain body heat, keeping the wearer warm without the heavy weight that can cause additional fatigue and limit mobility.
Safety is all about being prepared for anything. While we can’t predict some situations, the weather is something that safety professionals can prepare for annually, making it a natural consideration to work into both PPE offerings and safety best practices.
Bring in Experts
Perhaps the most important piece of developing an effective PPE program is ensuring that your workers take full advantage of the investment you’ve made in the right options and the best partner. The most effective PPE program is one that is used frequently.
When an employee goes into a store, there’s no way of knowing for sure whether they are finding the boots that are the right fit, quality and material. While safety professionals provide guidelines, nothing beats on-demand care.
Consider partnering with a PPE provider that has a digital voucher system. With these specialized programs, it is possible to ensure that employees are picking their safety footwear from a curated list of options chosen specifically for their job site needs and your company’s standards of safety. For example, you can personalize each worker’s options based on the specific role they fill for your company—boots that provide the best support for standing, lifting, climbing or any other activity workers perform most frequently.
Another alternative is to bring the store to the job site. Not all employees have the time or ability to go into a store but may still want the guidance of a professional before making a final decision. Seeking out a partner who can bring their safety footwear and other head-to-toe PPE options directly to a job site for easy fittings, real-time recommendations and quality assurance mean that every worker has access to PPE program participation.
Adhering to safety standards is only the beginning of creating the best PPE program for your company. The real difference comes in the quality of your PPE partner, the options you offer and the systems you put in place to ensure each worker has the most effective safety experience possible.
This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.