There are numerous different topics that must be explored when considering the realm of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and in particular, protective footwear. It comes in many different shapes and sizes to fit a wide variety of applications.
As with every piece of PPE the key consideration is to understand what hazards you are trying to protect your workers from. This is always best done as part of a formal risk assessment process. The so called ‘hierarchy of control’ determines that PPE should always be the last line of defence in protecting people and that other means of control such as elimination, substitution, isolation, engineering controls and administrative controls, should all be addressed first before considering PPE. In many applications of risk control there will invariably be some form of residual risk that may be further minimised through the use of PPE. A further vital consideration in the selection and use of PPE is to ensure that you are fully aware of and therefore compliant with all specific legal requirements for the country/region that you are operating in. Today, most countries have specific health and safety legislation dictating PPE requirements, you must ensure you understand and meet these. If in doubt, make contact with the local, regional or governmental regulatory agency responsible for health and safety legislation enforcement and seek advice.
Let us take a look at some examples where personal protective footwear may be used to reduce risk.
People working in environments with extreme temperature range; this can include people working with extreme hot temperatures, e.g. working with molten metals (steelworks and foundries) to people working in extreme cold environments, e.g. people working in freezers (meat and fish industries). Personal protective footwear for both these applications will be essential, but the type of footwear and its characteristics will be quite different.
Then there will be the three classical interpretations of protective footwear, designed to:
- Minimise the risk of slipping on wet or oily surfaces
- Protect people from stepping on sharp objects which can penetrate the skin
- Protect toes from dropped objects and/ or compaction injuries
There is also a wide variety of specialist protective footwear to safeguard against other significant hazards. People working in wet environments and chemical environments often wear protective rubber boots. People working in the electronics and semiconductor industries often wear anti-static footwear to prevent a build-up of static electricity, which might accidentally discharge into sensitive electronic components. In a related yet different application, you will have people working in high voltage electrical environments; these workers require protective footwear that isolates them from conducting a current.
“I can recall a diverse range of incidents where protective footwear could have helped prevent serious injury”
Some workers, particularly in the construction and energy industries, will also wear protective boots to help minimise the risk of ankle injuries, usually ‘rolled’ or ‘twisted’ ankles caused by stumbling or tripping on uneven/ broken surfaces.
A different specialised environment would include people who work in steep/mountainous terrains, for example; seismic exploration and forestry. These workers will require footwear best suited to the topography that they will be climbing in.
A final example might be workers in a health care environment, where PPE can take the form of a lightweight antislip sandal. This footwear can provide a comfort sole to people who are standing still for long periods; they also help to prevent feet from overheating and sweating, which can result in different types of skin ailments.
Effects of temperature
As is already apparent, there are a large number of people who might require personal protective footwear, across many different industries and geographical locations. When you reference the aforementioned list, please also bear in mind that many workers will require footwear that combines several hazards. Take the example of construction or oil and gas workers in locations like Siberia or Alaska. They will require footwear to protect them from -45°C temperatures in the winter months, whilst at the same time providing; toe protection, ankle support, anti-slip grip and possibly sole of the foot protection. The very same workers will require an entirely different boot for the summer months where daytime temperatures can reach +35°C. Thus, these workers will require at least two completely different sets of footwear. It is very common for workers to require footwear that address a number of different hazards and the type of protective shoe or boot must reflect this.
During a career in health and safety that spans more than 30 years I can recall a diverse range of incidents to feet and ankles where protective footwear could have helped either prevent serious personal injury or at least mitigate the effects.
Some examples for your consideration; a worker in Kazakhstan that had to have two toes amputated as a result of frostbite in his right foot. He had been working outside for long periods of time in -20°C temperatures in a pair of ‘training shoes’.
A construction worker who broke several toes after the load of bricks he was
carrying fell on his legs and feet, his shoes had no toe protection. A significant number of twisted ankle events where workers stumbled on uneven surfaces. Invariably the workers were wearing some form of protective shoe, but this did not provide any form of ankle protection. In some cases, the workers were wearing a slip on boot (very popular in the oil and gas industry) but the boot did not afford any form of ankle support. The boot had a protective toe cover, protective sole plate and antislip (gripping) sole, but the ankle was free moving inside the boot. This boot was very popular in the offshore oil and gas industry in the 1970s and 1980s. Part of the reason for this was that it was very easy to put on and take off. These workers would always be required to take their footwear off when they came inside the facility, this was to try and keep the interiors clean and dry. But if workers were having to remove their footwear six to eight times a day every day, they wanted something that was quick and easy to slip in and out of.
The same could also be said for people working in extreme cold environments; they want protective footwear that can be put on and taken off quickly, in -40°C temperatures you don’t want to spend five minutes tying or untying laces. So whilst the slip on boot met the criteria to be easy to put on and take off, the industry began to notice a growing number of twisted ankle events which could have been prevented had the boots afforded the wearer some form of ankle support. Industry gurus worked with the industry designers and manufacturers to try and develop a solution, a boot that provided ankle support but which at the time could be quickly removed. The protective footwear industry answered that call and developed a range of options to suit. One example was a lace up boot (to provide tight ankle support) with a zipper access, which would allow the foot to be easily and quickly placed or removed from the boot. Please note this is just one example, different manufacturers today have many different types of solutions to this problem.
I can also remember investigating an incident where a form worker, who was part of a team pouring cement as part of the construction of a basement, received severe chemical burns to his feet, ankles and shins. The worker had been wearing protective rubber boots to help him move through the wet cement, but the cement had splashed inside the boots and settled against his feet and legs. Cement has a significant alkali value; typically in the region of a PH 12 to 13 (Where a PH of 14 is considered the maximum and a PH of 7 is considered neutral). The fact that the cement was constantly exposed to the workers skin from the captive environment inside the boot exacerbated the problem and the worker received alkaline burns that caused a severe injury. This is an example where just wearing the PPE is only part of the protective solution, the worker also has to understand the nature of the risk. In this case the worker was aware that cement had splashed inside his boots, but did not appreciate the harm that this may cause.
I can recall a fatal accident to a seismic worker who was working in a rocky mountainous terrain. He had been issued with a set of steel toe protected work boots, the sort of boots that might have been perfect PPE in a factory type of environment. They were very sturdy, heavy and hot to wear. The worker was climbing over steep rocky topography that required professional climbing skills (which he had), he was covering 10 to 12km every day. At some point towards the end of the job he fell eight metres from a narrow footpath and died as a result of his injuries. No one actually saw what happened and it was therefore difficult to determine root cause, however, one of the critical findings of this investigation was that his protective footwear was totally unacceptable for the task and the terrain.
There is one popular myth associated with footwear that I would also like to address and that is that steel protected shoes / boots will protect a worker from absolutely all impact and compression incidents.
In the European Union, the current standard for safety footwear EN ISO 20345:2011 determines that toe protection should be able to withstand a 200 joule impact. This will afford protection from a variety of dropped objects dependent obviously on the mass of the object and the height from which it falls. But this impact standard will not afford much if any protection if the workers foot is run over by a forklift truck or has a shipping container landed on it (both sadly very common in many industries). Clearly it is very important to understand the limits of the protection afforded by the different types of PPE.
Having determined that protective footwear is required, the next stage is to identify a selection of suitable boots and/ or shoes that meet your criteria. Remember at this stage to ensure that your footwear meets any legal requirements that may exist and that it is manufactured and certified to meet applicable relevant international standards. There are a wide range of applicable standards for all footwear applications. The manufacturers and wholesalers can help you with this. The next stage is to invite your workforce or a representative sample to try some of the different footwear to assess fit, comfort, ease of putting on and taking off, weight and heat (most modern protective boots and shoes are designed with breathable materials to wick away moisture to help keep feet dry. Breathable materials include products like Coolmax and DXTVent designed to cool the footwear for workers operating in warm conditions.
Once you have settled on a particular type of protective footwear you can move onto the next phase of the protective system which addresses the following important steps; training, cleaning (inside and out), care and maintenance, periodic inspection and replacement.
You might think “why training? It’s only a pair of boots – how hard can it be?”
But remember the case study above, where the construction worker was badly burned by cement that had splashed inside his protective boots. All he knew was that he was required to wear rubber boots, he had no idea what they were protecting him from. So, needless to say, training is an important part of the process towards PPE’s efficiency. It is an opportunity to ensure that all workers understand the nature of the hazards that they face and how the protective footwear can protect them. You can work with them to ensure that the footwear is put on correctly; for example, for ankle support, it is very important that the laces are fastened in the correct configuration and to a suitable tension to afford full protection. In many cases this training will most likely deal with the full remit of safe working practices in the different industries and the footwear will be one component; this is fine.
Cleaning is also very important, particularly for footwear used in chemical industries or asbestos removal. There will be a very detailed process or procedure for cleaning these shoes/ boots as the cleaning process itself creates an additional hazard by potentially bringing an individual into contact with harmful substances / fibres. More general cleaning to remove mud, stones and contamination is also important to ensure that the protective systems within the footwear do not breakdown. I mention the importance of cleaning inside the boots too; if the boots get wet inside, it is important to dry them. If contaminants get inside the boots it will be important to either remove them or treat them. Sprinkling anti-fungal powder can help prevent a build-up of harmful fungus in the footwear. The manufacturers and suppliers of the footwear will be able to provide you with information on how to clean and care for your footwear.
Periodic inspection, care and maintenance also contribute to this process. The inspection part is very helpful, your protective footwear will very quickly just become part of your daily routine, you will fail to even notice it, so it is very worthwhile every three to six months to take five to 10 minutes to check it over and make sure it is not damaged, punctured, worn or cracked. Puncturing and cracking may allow fluids to enter the shoe, which in any event will be uncomfortable, but if you are working in a chemical environment may lead to a chemical burn injury. So, make a point of conducting a routine check to ensure the footwear still affords the protection it was designed to. For most of us, once we have a comfortable pair of boots or shoes we are reluctant to give them up and replace them, but sometimes this is unavoidable. Once the integrity of the footwear begins to falter it is time to replace it.
Protective footwear is a complex topic, so it is important to have access to good information and guidance; the manufacturers and suppliers – many of whom advertise in this magazine – are there to help you find the right solution. They will even be able to customise a solution for you if you have very specific needs. So please engage with them.
As an ex-regulatory health and safety inspector for a government agency in the United Kingdom, I used to state that you could tell a great deal about a company by the condition of the PPE the workers wore. If it was fit for purpose, clean, well maintained and in good condition it spoke volumes about the company’s attitude to health and safety, and the workforce’s attitude to safety culture.