Originally published on 18th May 2018
Updated 15th July 2019

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Could Safety Footwear Be Causing Your Workers Harm?

It’s likely that you’ve heard workers complain about discomfort or pain as a result of their safety footwear.

But it may surprise you to know that a recent study by biomechanical researcher Terje Haugaa found that over 30% of people who wear safety shoes have one or more health-related foot problems. With this in mind, it’s crucial that safety boots and shoes are chosen carefully, both to reduce the development of health problems and to avoid a negative impact on productivity.


Why Is Safety Footwear Important?

It's likely that you’ve heard workers complain about discomfort or pain as a result of their safety footwear. Work boots and shoes are essential for keeping employees safe, but they can cause problems if not selected with care.

Numerous studies have found that those who wear safety shoes for long periods have one or more foot problems. Others cite the impact safety footwear can have on other health-related issues, such as back pain and injury, and its relation to poor concentration and the increased danger of accidents. With this in mind, it's crucial that safety boots and shoes are chosen carefully, both to reduce the development of health problems and avoid a negative impact on productivity.


The Risks of Poor Safety Footwear

Many workers' roles require them to be on their feet for a large portion of the day. Some people spend more time wearing safety boots than any other kind of footwear. Foot injuries and conditions can occur if inadequate footwear is worn regularly. Footwear that is too tight, too heavy, rubs or has inadequate thermal protection can cause the wearer short-term discomfort and long-term health issues.

RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) is one of the most common health complaints in the workplace. This causes the individual to experience aches and pain in the upper body and is generally caused by repetitive movements or poor posture at work. More than half of occupational injuries are directly related to the hands and feet. Musculoskeletal disorders such as plantar fasciitis, fallen arches or flat feet are also common, with many cases going undiagnosed. Over time, workers with these conditions can experience secondary injuries to the knees, hips, spine and even the neck. Work boots and shoes that provide poor sole or heel support are one of the major causes of plantar fasciitis due to over-pronation of the foot, where the arches collapse and the feet "roll over" and elongate. This puts excess strain on the ligaments, muscles and nerves in the foot.

The answer to preventing these foot related health problems? Provide high-quality and supportive footwear!

With all of the potential safety hazards in the workplace, feet are especially vulnerable to injury. Falling objects, sharp objects on the floor and slippery surfaces are common hazards that put workers at risk of foot injuries, with slips, trips and falls accounting for 31% of all non-fatal workplace injuries in 2017/18. In all such cases, safety footwear can act as a crucial line of defence against injury.

Non-slip safety footwear can minimise the risk of slips, trips and falls, while insulated steel toecap boots can protect the wearer from health issues resulting from extreme temperatures and falling objects. All workplaces differ and, consequently, the type of safety footwear required will vary. It’s important to consider the particular hazards present in your workplace and select the appropriate safety footwear to ensure that your staff are protected from harm. Injuries at work have a detrimental impact on performance and productivity, so guarding against them is vital for the continued success of your business. With this in mind, we've compiled a simple guide below on how to select safety footwear, so you can rest assured that your team are safe, healthy, comfortable and able to do their job.

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Safety Footwear Must Be Fit for Purpose

The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 state that if a risk has been identified and cannot be controlled in any other way, protective equipment must be provided, and this includes footwear.

There isn’t a single pair of safety boots or shoes that will work perfectly for all applications. Each work area must be approached separately with a safety footwear risk assessment so the correct footwear designed to protect against the present hazards is selected. The first thing to consider is the risks in each environment. Is there water, oil, the risk of falling objects, hot surfaces, electrical hazards or acids present? All of these can be protected against using the right footwear, which might include waterproof safety boots, non-slip safety footwear or insulated safety toe boots. If your workers are likely to be very active or working in hot conditions, you might also think about breathable safety footwear. The choices are almost endless, so it is vital to consider the relevant health and safety footwear regulations to ensure that your chosen footwear is fully compliant.

EN ISO 20345 is the standard for all work boots and shoes that fall into the category of “safety footwear”. This standard specifies 200 joules impact resistance and a 15KN compression test, which is equivalent to a 20 kg weight dropped 1,020 mm onto the toes and 1.5 tonnes resting on the toe area. It’s important to refer to the ratings — which will tell you what properties the shoes have — so you can directly correlate the hazards in a particular environment with the best product for the job. Safety footwear manufacturers display these ratings as codes. For example, V12 Thunder Boots are rated S3 HRO WR SRC. This means they have midsole penetration protection (S3), are water resistant (WR), have a heat-resistant outsole (HRO) tested to 300°C, and have been slip-tested on both ceramic tile wetted with a dilute soap solution and on smooth steel with glycerol (SRC). For the full standards on foot and leg protection and what each code means, you can refer to Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) documentation.

Of course, all of this is redundant if your employees refuse to wear their PPE. If this is the case, you need to educate them on the importance of using the correct safety footwear and motivate your team to wear PPE to improve safety, not only for themselves but for their colleagues too.


Ensure That Work Boots and Shoes Fit Correctly

Achieving a good fit is just as important as making sure footwear is suitable for the working environment and occupation. Poor-fitting footwear can lead to bunions, corns, calluses and other foot problems.

Often, workers experience discomfort simply because they are not wearing the correct size. Footwear that fits well should allow the toes wiggle room, with an approximately 1 cm gap between the longest toe and the end of the shoe. In terms of metal or composite toe caps, if the shoes are padded and fitted properly, you should not be able to feel the toe caps at all. The heel should fit snugly on the foot and stabilise the foot upon ground contact.

Workers should be advised to measure both feet, as they may not be the same size, with length, depth and width all considered equally. Measuring should take place periodically in the event of any changes to the size and shape of the feet.

You will also need to consider the difference between men’s and ladies’ sizing. Until recently, there have been limited female-specific PPE alternatives and, often, downsizing was the only option for women selecting safety shoes. However, safety footwear manufacturers such as V12 are now producing women’s safety footwear designed specifically for ladies’ feet.


Ensure Work Shoes are Made for Comfort

Sometimes, despite wearing the correct size and selecting footwear that adheres to all relevant safety regulations, work boots and shoes may still be uncomfortable. The perfect fitting waterproof safety boots may still be uncomfortable if they have not been carefully selected. Although they might provide the necessary protection, they may simply not suit the feet or the job role of the wearer in mind. It’s a good idea to allow workers to try several types or brands of footwear and gather their feedback. After all, they are the ones who will be wearing them every day!

Fit is important, but you should also consider other comfort factors. Breathable safety boots prevent feet from becoming hot, sweaty and uncomfortable — they're an investment your workers will thank you for. There are also ways to increase comfort without changing the style of boot, including wearing insole inserts and good-quality socks. When your workers are comfortable, there'll be better equipped to do their job to their best ability, so investing in the right, comfortable footwear can really make a difference to your business's work output.

Advise workers against the idea of "breaking in" new footwear because, contrary to popular belief, if the shoe fits well, it should feel comfortable straight away. If discomfort occurs early on and insoles and socks aren't making a difference, advise employees to try a different shoe, rather than grinning and bearing it. Uncomfortable safety footwear is not something that should be put up with and it's important to show workers that their comfort isn't a secondary consideration.


Take the Time to Maintain Your Safety Footwear

Once you've provided footwear that’s suitable, fits perfectly and is comfortable, you then need to ensure the quality of the shoes is maintained. If footwear is not regularly maintained, it will quickly become unsuitable, despite all previous precautions. HSE advises that PPE must be properly looked after and stored when not in use. Before wearing, safety footwear should always be checked for faults, damage, wear and tear, and dirt.

Footwear should also be cleaned regularly. If boots are smooth leather, they should be polished and treated; if you provide suede footwear, it must be brushed and treated with a water-resistant spray. Soles should be brushed and washed to remove dirt and contaminants, and the shoes should be stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. For more detailed cleaning instructions, you should refer to the maintenance guidelines provided by the manufacturer of your chosen safety footwear.

As soon as safety footwear is no longer fit for purpose and cannot be repaired, it’s time to replace them. There are several warning signs that signal when footwear has reached retirement age, such as damaged toes, protective components showing, separation of rubber or PVC parts, worn tread design, and cuts, cracks or punctures that could cause leaking. If you have any doubt over whether the footwear can do what it was originally intended to, it's time to dispose of it!

Providing your team with a "standard" pair of safety boots, regardless of their roles, the work environment or their individual needs, is simply not sufficient to keep your workers safe and comfortable. Safety footwear should be chosen carefully with due consideration for fit, comfort, purpose and the specific workplace hazards employees may be exposed to. A good place to start when choosing work boots and shoes is referring to the EN ISO 20345 standard. Workers who feel protected, valued, safe and comfortable are more likely to be content and motivated to deliver their best performance. Investing in appropriate safety footwear benefits employer and employee alike and it’s something you won’t regret, so why not browse our extensive range and choose the perfect safety footwear for your team today?


Further Reading

Understanding EN ISO 20345 - Safety Footwear (formerly EN345)

Extending the Life of Workwear and PPE

5 Ways to Motivate your Team to Wear PPE


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