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Safety Footwear is Not a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

When selecting footwear, workers should consider multiple factors to ensure their safety.

Success on the job site starts from the ground up. This generally begins with reliable safety footwear. For the past several decades, this footwear was often associated with bulky and heavy steel-toed, leather-shod, rubber-soled work boots. However, thanks to innovations from footwear brands, there are now a myriad of performance and comfort enhancements available in work boots that do not come at the expense of safety.  

These advancements are particularly important with the rise in manufacturing, distribution and warehousing jobs, as well as changing and increasingly diverse workforces that have been entering the industry. While other industries have struggled in a post-pandemic environment, factory production in September 2022 was the highest in 14 years. With this changing landscape, the right personal protective equipment is essential—and safety footwear is no exception.  

A Changing Landscape  

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, employment rates in manufacturing began to skyrocket. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 46,000 employees joined this industry between February 2020 to September 2020 despite decreasing employment rates in a majority of other sectors. This was primarily due to the explosion in e-commerce sales during the pandemic, as nationwide shutdowns left many consumers seeking online shopping solutions. Since 2020, the rise in online shopping has persisted and has become an integral part of the consumer experience worldwide. This has created an equally increased need for skilled labor in the logistics and distribution industries.  

With this paradigm shift in the way consumers shop, the manufacturing industry will continue to rise as employment in hand laborers and material movers are projected to grow as much as seven percent between 2020 to 2030. Meeting this increased demand necessitates a generation of workers who are new to this industry as well as potentially longer shifts for those continuing to work in this sector. Consequently, the safety and comfort of those working in these labor-intensive industries must be considered. To avoid injuries and fatigue, outfit this workforce with PPE, including safety footwear that will enable success on the job.  

Despite preconceived notions, safety footwear no longer needs to be synonymous with bulk to offer maximum protection. For example, with recent advancements, work boots and safety shoes are now being designed with athletic silhouettes to meet both the demands of the job as well as the personal preferences of those entering these industries. These innovations have resulted in footwear that blends the lightweight fit and feel of an athletic sneaker with the protection of a traditional safety shoe.  

Material advancements have also played a significant role in providing this newfound mobility and comfort in safety footwear as well as protecting against on-site hazards. Work sneaker uppers are now constructed with a blend of mesh and textiles to offer both breathability and durability. Knitwork sneakers are often equipped with features like waterproof lining and TPU webbing to provide additional stability and protection.  

To maximize comfort for long days on the job, enhancements in midsoles have also proven to be helpful. Through the use of proprietary compounds, these enhancements provide additional performance cushioning and allow workers to find a shoe that best fits their needs. Along with additional support, another comfort feature includes shock absorption, which returns energy with every step and increases productivity over the course of a work shift.  

Safety Features  

With the multitude of advancements in safety footwear, selecting the best pair for the job can be overwhelming. However, this process can be simplified when considering the unique requirements of a particular job site. Whether it’s reflective webbing for conditions with low lighting or an EH-rated outsole for electric shock protection, there is likely a boot or shoe designed to combat the unique hazards of a given job. Despite this variability, here are some key factors to keep in mind when selecting new safety footwear.  

Slip Resistance. Although slips and falls are not a primary cause of fatal occupational injuries, they do represent the primary cause of lost days from work. It is essential to find footwear that protects against these types of injuries. Boots with slip-resistant outsoles can disperse liquid quickly, and those with multidirectional lugs help provide better traction in mud or ice. Looking at the bottom of the shoe prior to purchase can be helpful in determining the level of resistance, as this often depends on the outsole’s tread pattern and material.  

Safety Toe Selection. Depending on the trade, safety toes are essential when it comes to helping prevent a wide range of injuries. Traditionally, safety toes are made out of materials such as steel or aluminum. However, one of the latest toe caps to hit the market are carbon-fiber. These caps are 15 percent lighter than steel and do not sacrifice safety. Carbon-fiber toes are especially convenient for workers whose jobs may require them to pass through metal detectors throughout the day.  

Seasonality. Although many boots are made to be worn year-round, there are benefits to purchasing boots specific for the summer or winter months. To ensure feet stay warm and dry in the wintertime, purchasing a boot with a waterproof system can be beneficial. However, as summer rolls around, transitioning into a boot that is lighter with more breathability will help keep feet cool.  

When shopping in-store, it is also important to wear a pair of socks you would normally wear on the job. We recommend trying on potential boots after a shift or at the end of the day when feet are naturally more swollen to ensure the right fit. Although these differences may seem minimal, boots that are too loose can be safety hazards, and boots that are too tight can cause a variety of foot-health problems such as blisters and ingrown toenails.  

Finding the Best Fit for Women  

Finding the best-fitting PPE continues to be a challenge for women, as a 2016 study found a majority of female construction workers reported fit problems with many types of PPE including gloves, harnesses, safety vests and work boots. Traditionally, women’s PPE has often been identical to their male counterparts but shrunken to a smaller size. However, there are significant anatomical differences between men's and women’s feet including bone structure, size, width and shape. These variations require gender-specific safety footwear.  

The lack of inclusivity in PPE stemmed from its development in the 1950s and 1970s by the National Institute of Health and Safety, as the organization used data collected from military personnel and the general population of that era. Now decades old, this data no longer reflects today’s diverse workforce—which encompasses more women, body shapes and sizes that were not part of this collection of data. 

Without properly fitting PPE, the safety of tradeswomen is compromised and can send the message they are not welcome in the trades. Further, ill-fitting safety footwear can lead to injuries from hot spots, blisters and abrasions to unnecessary bulk which could cause slips, trips and falls. To combat these injuries, women in the market should seek out brands that specifically design and fit products for the biomechanics of their bodies. Some companies bring tradeswomen into the product development process. These women, who come from a variety of professions, can provide feedback on the fit and performance of products from initial conception to product release, which can be incorporated to improve future designs.  

Looking Forward  

Selecting a work boot that fits well and has the right performance, comfort and safety features for success on the job site is crucial. Since safety and comfort start from the ground up, the right footwear is essential in meeting the constantly evolving demands of labor-intensive fields. This is especially important looking forward, as a surge of women entering into the trades coupled with a rise in manufacturing calls for footwear that not only account for variations on the job site but also the anatomical differences of every foot.  

This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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