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.
The risks of poor safety footwear
Many workers’ roles require them to be on their feet for a large proportion of the working day. Some people spend more time wearing safety boots than any other kind of footwear. Feet injuries and conditions can occur through a number of different issues, including if footwear is too tight, too heavy, is rubbing, or has inadequate thermal protection.
RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) is one of the largest work environment problems and 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 sufferers going undiagnosed. Over time, workers with these conditions can also experience knock-on effects to the knees, hips, spine and even the neck. Poor sole or heel support is 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 ligaments, muscles and nerves in the foot.
The answer to preventing these foot related health problems?... Providing high-quality and supportive footwear!
With all of the potential safety hazards in a workplace, feet are also vulnerable to accidents occuring. This can be due to falling objects, sharp objects on the floor, and slippery surfaces, to name a few, and in all such cases safety footwear can act as that crucial line last of defence against injury.
Needless to say, all of these problems will be detrimental to a worker’s performance, so we’ve compiled this simple guide on how to select safety footwear so you can rest assured that your team are safe, healthy, comfortable and able to do their job.
Fit for purpose
The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 states that if a risk has been identified and cannot be controlled in any other way, then protective equipment must be provided and this includes footwear.
There isn’t a single pair of safety shoes or boots that will work perfectly for all applications. Each work area must be approached separately with a safety footwear risk assessment, so the footwear selected is designed to protect against the hazards that are present.
So the first thing to consider is what the risks are in each individual environment. For example, is there water, oil, a risk of falling objects, hot surfaces, electrical hazards or acids present? All of these can be protected against using the right footwear.
Safety footwear must have the appropriate features to conform to relevant health and safety footwear regulations, namely EN ISO 20345 which specifies 200 joules impact resistance and a 15KN compression test. This is equivalent to a 20kg weight dropped 1020mm 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. These ratings are displayed as codes, for example the 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 tested to 300°C, and have been slip-tested on both ceramic tile wetted with dilute soap solution and on smooth steel with glycerol (SRC). Refer to HSE documentation for a full guide on standards for foot and leg protection.
Of course, all this can become redundant if workers refuse to wear their PPE. Read our article on ways to motivate your team to wear PPE to ensure everyone is aware of the importance of using the correct safety footwear.
Achieving a good fit is just as important as making sure footwear is suitable for the working environment and occupation. Poorly fitting footwear can lead to bunions, corns, calluses and other similar foot problems.
Often workers experience discomfort simply because they are not wearing the correct size. Footwear that fits correctly should allow the toes wiggle room, with approximately 1cm gap between the longest toe and the end of the shoe. With regards to 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 case of any change.
You will also need to consider the difference between men’s and ladies’ sizing. Up until recently there have been limited female-specific PPE alternatives, and often downsizing was the solution for women’s safety shoes rather than tailoring to the shape of a female foot. However, manufacturers such as V12 are now producing women’s safety footwear designed specifically for ladies’ feet.
Sometimes, despite being the correct size and adhering to all relevant safety regulations, safety footwear can still be uncomfortable. Although it may provide the necessary protection, it 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 different products and gather their feedback. After all, they are the ones who will be wearing them every day!
There are also ways to increase comfort without changing the style of boot, including insole inserts and good quality socks.
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 second thought.
Once you’ve provided footwear that’s suitable, fits perfectly and is comfortable, it’s then important to ensure the quality of the shoes is maintained. If footwear is not regularly maintained it will quickly become unsuitable despite all previous precautions. The HSE advise 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.
Cleaning of the footwear should occur regularly. If boots are smooth leather, they should be polished and treated, and if suede they must be brushed and treated with 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 manufacturer’s maintenance guidance.
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 will 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 which could cause leaking. If there is any doubt surrounding whether the footwear can do what it originally intended to do, it’s time to dispose of it!