Workplace safety has a simple formula and is of paramount importance in all areas of industry.
The formula is quite simple: good safety practice equals good business outcomes. This formula examines the return of investment in occupational health and safety. Personal protective equipment (PPE) in one form or another constitutes an investment in safety, and includes anything used or worn by a person to minimise risk to their health and safety. This article will focus on industrial safety footwear.
With acknowledgement and reference to the hierarchy of risk control, PPE is one of the least effective ways of controlling risks to health and safety and should only be used:
- When there are no other practical control measures available (as a last resort)
- As an interim measure until a more effective way of controlling the risk can be used
- To supplement higher level control measures (as a back-up)
PPE is useful, but it is also one of the least effective ways of controlling safety hazards. PPE works best when used with other control measures – or when absolutely no other safety measures are available.
There are specific laws about using appropriate PPE in the workplace. This includes providing PPE if your workers (including contractors) do not have it and you require them to wear it. Moreover, consultation with your workers is also important when selecting PPE, and training on how to use it also applies.
The standard of PPE used at a workplace must be:
- Selected to minimise risk to health and safety
- Suitable for the nature of the work and any associated hazards
- A suitable size and fit and reasonably comfortable for the person wearing it
- Properly stored maintained, repaired or replaced so it continues to minimise the worker’s health and safety risk
- Used or worn by the worker, so far as is reasonably practicable
Safety boots are shoes made with a protective reinforcement at the front making them quite durable. The reinforcement helps to protect the toes from falling objects or any kind of compression. They are normally installed with a sole plate in the main sole to prevent against punctures that may come from below. The reinforcement is normally made of steel, hence they are sometimes known as steel toe cap boots.
The US Congress in 1970 enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which was aimed at ensuring that workers operated in a safe environment. An administration was created to ensure that workplace safety standards were enforced. These standards included those that required the use of footwear that is protective in places that posed the threat of foot injuries. Safety footwear these days is a mandatory requirement in many industries like the construction and mining industries.
Various subcultures have adopted the use of the safety boots. These shoes were very dangerous when it came to frictions between wearers because of their sturdiness and also due to the steel toe. During the 1960s and into present day several work boots and varieties of steel toed footwear brands particularly Grinders and Dr Martens were popular among punk subcultures.
Safety boots have continued to develop to reflect the current fashions, unlike many other protective gadgets. Customers’ expectations keep changing, hence the manufacturers are forced to produce such boots in a variety of styles. Despite steel being the main material used for making reinforcements, other composite materials or even plastics may be used for the same purpose. The popularity of the safety boots is bound and continues into the future due to the importance they have to various industries.
Safety footwear these days comes in different styles like clogs and sneakers. Some are meant for formal purposes, while engineers who work in sites that require protective footwear use others. Due to the popularity of safety boots, other brands that mainly featured in the fashion business have diversified to target the safety footwear industry.
How is footwear selected?
Footwear must be chosen based on the hazards that are present. Assess the workplace and work activities for:
- Materials handled or used by the worker
- Risk of objects falling onto or striking the feet
- Any material or equipment that might roll over the feet
- Any sharp or pointed objects that might cut the top of the feet
- Objects that may penetrate the bottom or side of the foot
- Possible exposure to corrosive or irritating substances
- Possible explosive atmospheres including the risk of static electrical discharges
- Risk of damage to sensitive electronic components or equipment due to the discharge of static electricity
- Risk of coming into contact with energised conductors of low to moderate voltage (e.g. 220 volts or less)
- Type of walking surface and environmental conditions workers may be exposed to, e.g. loose ground cover, smooth surfaces, temperature, wet/oily, chemicals, etc
Assess the risk
Slip resistant footwear reduces slips, while other footwear can increase the risks. To assess shoes, you need to check that they suit the tasks and the flooring or ground surfaces, providing adequate friction between the footwear and the surface.
Signs that shoes are placing wearers at risk of slips, trips and falls include shoes with:
- Treads that are regularly clogged with contaminants (tread not suited to the contaminant)
- Soles that are very smooth, but tasks and environment require moving across smooth, polished floors that may have contaminants
- Soles with small contact areas when tasks require walking over uneven ground, sloped surfaces, handling heavy loads or rapid movements on contaminated floors
- Loose fitting shoes such as sandals that are not well fastened around the foot
- Worn out treads or soles that no longer provide grip
Decide on control measures
Ensure the shoes you choose for work suit the environment, the tasks and the types of potential contaminants. Some jobs may require a few different types of shoes. To encourage workers and others at the workplace to avoid slips, trips and falls, the following strategies can help:
- Have a footwear policy, e.g. for ‘sensible’ and/or ‘slip resistant’ footwear and the requirement to clean and maintain the footwear
- Provide clear advice to workers about design features to look for in their footwear suited to their work environments and tasks
- Provide cleaning stations where contaminants can be removed from the tread
- Remind workers to repair or dispose of footwear when the sole or tread is worn or damaged
- Provide footwear guidance or requirements for workplace visitors, contractors etc
Sensible footwear for most work tasks has these features:
- Flat shoes and enclosed toes
- Well fastened and firm foot grip
- Flexible, cushioned sole
- Support and grip around the heel
- Comfortable to wear all shift
- Sole tread suited to likely ‘contaminants’ without the tread becoming clogged
- Tread kept clean and in good condition
Also, evaluate the risk:
- To ankles from uneven walking surfaces or rough terrain
- Of foot injury due to exposure to extreme hot or cold
- Of slips and falls on slippery walking surfaces
- Of exposure to water or other liquids that may penetrate the footwear causing damage to the foot and the footwear
- Of exposure to rotating or abrasive machinery (e.g. chainsaws or grinders)
What should I know about the fit and care of safety footwear?
- Try on new boots around midday as feet normally swell during the day
- Walk in new footwear to ensure it is comfortable
- Boots should have ample toe room – toes should be about 12.5 mm from the front
- Do not expect footwear to stretch with wear
Make allowances for extra socks or special arch supports when buying boots. Try on your new boots with the supports or socks you usually wear at work. Check with the manufacturer whether adding inserts will affect your level of protection.
Boots should fit snugly around the heel and ankle when laced.
Lace boots up fully. High-cut boots provide support against ankle injury.
- Use a protective coating to make footwear water-resistant
- Inspect footwear regularly for damage, e.g. cracks in soles, breaks in leather, or exposed toe caps
- Repair or replace worn or defective footwear
- Electric shock resistance of footwear is greatly reduced by wet conditions and with wear
- Footwear exposed to sole penetration or impact may not have visible signs of damage. Replacing footwear after an event is advisable (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety, 2016)
Legislative requirements ensure persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) should ensure:
- PPE is used properly in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions
- PPE fits correctly and is reasonably comfortable for the worker who is to use or wear it
- PPE does not interfere with any medical conditions of the worker
- Workers are instructed and trained in how to use, maintain and store the PPE
- Appropriate signs are used to remind workers where PPE must be worn, and
- Periodic assessments are carried out to ensure PPE is used properly and is effective
If PPE is required, the person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) who is directing the work must provide PPE to workers at the workplace, unless it has been provided by another PCBU. This will usually be the person’s employer but could also be, for example, a main contractor at the workplace.
When choosing the right personal protective equipment (PPE) for the job the selection processes must include consultation with users and their representatives and should also include:
- A detailed evaluation of the risk and performance requirements for the PPE
- Compatibility of PPE items where more than one type of PPE is required, for example, ear muffs with a hard hat
- Consultation with the supplier to ensure PPE is suitable for the work and workplace conditions
- Preference for PPE that complies with the relevant Australian Standard or equivalent standard
PPE must be maintained, repaired or replaced so it continues to minimise the risk to the worker who uses it. This includes ensuring the equipment is:
- Clean and hygienic
- In good working order
The PPE must be maintained to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that it is available for use by the worker.
Where PPE is provided and used at work, you should remember that:
- Wearing PPE may adversely affect the performance of tasks being undertaken (e.g. restricting vision or mobility)
- PPE may be uncomfortable to wear and some workers may not be able to wear it (e.g. workers who are allergic to latex cannot wear rubber gloves)
- Ongoing supervision is required to ensure the PPE is being used correctly
- PPE may create new hazards (for example some items of PPE can hinder the body’s natural cooling mechanisms by preventing evaporation of perspiration)
A worker who is provided with PPE must:
- Use or wear the PPE in accordance with any information, training or reasonable instruction provided, so far as they are reasonably able
- Not intentionally misuse or damage the PPE
- Advise the PCBU of any damage, defect or need to clean or decontaminate any of the PPE they are aware of, and
- Consult with their manager if the PPE is uncomfortable or does not fit properly
A person other than a worker must wear the PPE at the workplace in accordance with any information, training or reasonable instruction provided by their person conducting a business or undertaking.
What should I know about safety footwear?
If you are at risk of foot injury at your workplace, you should wear the appropriate protective footwear. If foot protection is required, set up a complete foot safety protection programme including selection, fit testing, training, maintenance and inspection.
Safety footwear is designed to protect feet against a wide variety of injuries. Impact, compression and puncture are the most common types of foot injury. Choose footwear according to the hazard.
Refer to the International Organization for Standardization which provides the European standard for Safety footwear. The current one is ISO 20345:2011. The ISO 20345:2011 standard specifies basic and additional (optional) requirements for safety footwear used for general purposes. It includes, for example, mechanical risks, slip resistance, thermal risks, and ergonomic behaviour.
Special risks are covered by complementary job-related standards, e.g. footwear for firefighters, electrical insulating footwear, footwear protecting against chainsaw injuries, chemicals, molten metal splash, and protection for motorcycle riders.
Ensure that the protective footwear has the proper rating for the hazard and the proper sole for the working conditions. In addition, use metatarsal protection (top of the foot between the toes and ankle) where there is a potential for injury.
The future of PPE will come down to practicality (slip-resistant), lightweight and comfortable style and proper adjustment for worker fitment, rather than a one size fits all approach. The technology of urban industrial footwear may also feature slip resistant compounds that grip the microscopic roughness of the floor surfaces using a tread type pattern that channels liquids away from the bottom of the sole; similar to that of a car tyre. Whichever way you look at it the science is the same – one of protection. The contribution to industrial safety will finally depend on the organisations direct investment towards workplace safety. This will validate the return of investment to produce successful safety outcomes.