Balancing, standing, running, walking, jumping, kicking. All of these would be very difficult without two key parts of our body… our feet.
In the workplace they can often be overlooked, as most of our workplace tasks are accomplished with our hands. So a large proportion of workplace injuries happen to that part of our body. However, ignoring the importance of our feet can lead to incidents which are just as serious as with the hands, causing crippling injuries, and even permanent life-changing disabilities. Whilst we can employ plenty of control measures, having the right workplace footwear can play a significant part in preventing these incidents from happening, or at least limiting their severity.
A lot of you reading this article today will immediately think of issuing the workforce with the good old steel toe-cap boots. Go down the road to our Safety Equipment supplier, pickup several pairs of boots, job done. Well, like any safety issue, the solutions are not as always easy as they seem. Indeed, in certain situations, steel toe-cap boots may make the problem worse, not better. SCUBA Divers for example, would find movement difficult, if not impossible, if we decided to give them these boots instead of their fins (although they may appreciate the extra weight provided). So, in order to solve the problem, we must first understand the problem. Why do a person’s feet get injured in the workplace?
Causes of injuries
A lot of foot-related injuries are caused by slips, trips and falls (here I am talking about falls on the same level, not falls from height, which is a totally different issue). A slip occurs when a person’s foot loses friction with the surface they are walking on. They could be walking on a smooth or wet surface for example, and as they try to plant their foot, it continues to slide away from them, causing them to lose their balance. A trip occurs when someone’s foot strikes against, or is struck by, a fixed or moving object, and the person’s momentum causes them to fall over. Even if they do not fall over, the collision between their foot and the object can cause injury to the person. I am sure every one of you reading this has at some point in their lives “stubbed” a toe (ouch, that hurts me just thinking about it!). Often these slip, trip and fall incidents repeat themselves time and time again, as workers “get away with it” and have a near miss (an unplanned, unwanted event that does not result in harm, or a loss of some kind). As no harm has occurred, they think nothing of it, and they do not report the problem. These problems could include almost tripping over trailing cables in walkways, kicking a damaged step on some stairs, and so on. As the problem is unknown and therefore not dealt with, another worker encounters the same hazard, but this time has an incident (an unplanned, unwanted event that results in an injury to themselves, and /or some other form of harm, such as harm to someone else, damaging equipment they were carrying by dropping it on the floor).
Another common cause of injuries to worker’s feet are dropped objects falling onto their feet. As mentioned in the paragraph above, this is quite common during any manual handing activity. This can also occur in situations where objects are not stacked/stored properly, left close to edges, or are unbalanced. These objects then fall after being knocked by over by something else (e.g. a forklift hits a stack of potato sacks stored on pallets), a strong enough flow of air (wind outside, use of fans etc. inside) pushes them over, or they collapse/fall due to the inevitable pull of gravity.
Equipment and machinery are another significant danger when it comes to foot injuries. Feet being run over by vehicles, such as cars and forklift trucks, is commonplace. However, other equipment can do the same thing. Many workplaces have heavy trolleys, pallet jacks and other manual handling aids that can easily cause injury if coming into contact with workers’ feet. Quite a large amount of machinery and equipment also has moving and rotating parts, other than wheels. Think of conveyor belt systems, escalators and travelators for example. Feet being caught in these mechanisms can lead to horrific incidents. Some equipment and machinery also have sharp-edged blades, cutting edges and other parts. This can be part of their design due to the task they are undertaking, but again, they would make short work of a person’s foot if they were to be in the line of fire. Imagine a worker is struggling to start a chainsaw. They keep pulling and pulling on the start-cord but the chainsaw refuses to start. The worker resorts to placing their foot on the chainsaw in order to gain more leverage. Success! The extra leverage started up the chainsaw, but now their left foot is mincemeat, as it was resting on the chainsaw blade when it started up.
Workers can also cause or make a large contribution to their own problems, by not wearing the correct type of footwear. Sandals and flip-flops are perfect by the pool or on the beach, but you are just asking for trouble wearing them on a construction site. Even with the correct footwear, workers will often be lazy and not wear them correctly, just slipping their foot into them loosely, or not tying up laces properly (if at all). Workers can also be issued the incorrect size of footwear (too small or too big for that individual), but they do not complain as they feel they will get into trouble, or be forced to buy their own (a breach of most countries Health & Safety Law, whereby an employer must provide workers PPE free of charge).
Scale of the problem
So how big of a problem are foot-related incidents? Well, according to the United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), workplace injuries cost the economy 5.2 Billion GBP in the period of 2017/2018. There were an estimated 581,000 non-fatal injuries. Of these, 29% (168,490) came from slips, trips and falls on the same level; 20% (116,200) from handling, lifting or carrying loads; and 10% (58,100) as a result of being struck by a moving object (This is all relevant as these are three hazards which I have already discussed earlier in the article). https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/overall/hssh1819.pdf. These injuries can include cuts and bruises, soft tissue damage, sprains and strains, fractures or even partial and total loss of toes and/or whole feet. The HSE mentions the monetary cost, but what other costs are there? These workers will have had to take time off from work, forcing employers in having to bring in and train temporary replacements in order to sustain productivity. Morale in these workforces will have dropped, with workers traumatised by seeing friends and co-workers suffer, and wondering if they are next. There are of course medical costs to consider. Particularly if someone has suffered from a permanent injury, do they now need wheelchairs or other access equipment to move around? What about the lost income from the fact they may not be able to do their particular job anymore (or indeed, may not be able to be part of the workforce at all)? If that person was the only worker in a family, how will that family now keep food on the table, and a roof over their heads? The companies involved could also suffer through damage to their reputations, loss of contracts, and even jail terms for those accountable for safety. Remember, it is not just fatal incidents that have massive consequences.
So, what can be done about foot-related injuries and incidents?
As always, a thorough risk assessment, employing the hierarchy of control, will greatly assist us. If we can eliminate the hazard, we have no risk, and therefore have no problem. You could substitute something harmful, for something less harmful, or use engineering controls. Examples in this instance might be to use slip-resistant floor surfaces and have sensors on equipment that would immediately shut down if it detected someone’s foot too close to a dangerous area. Administration could be employed, with training workers about the various hazards and how to avoid them, and putting policies and procedures in place to ensure worker’s feet are kept out of harm’s way. Finally, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) can be employed, in this case, Foot Protection. In this next section of the article, this is what I will discuss. Remember though, as with any safety problem, PPE should be the last thing to consider. Ideally, the most effective approach we should use is a multi-layered mixture of the hierarchy of control.
Foot protection comes in many different forms. Its design is based upon the hazards we are trying to protect the individual worker from. You could take the generic approach, using the traditional steel toe-capped safety boots. These boots can protect workers against dropped objects, sharp objects and spills of certain liquids and chemicals. Usually there is a steel cap in the end of the boot, which effectively wraps around the toes and front part of the foot. As modern technology advances, however, different materials are starting to be used. These composite materials (materials created by combining two or more individual materials) can include carbon fibre, Kevlar, fibreglass or TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane). These materials can be just as strong as steel (but not always) and have various advantages over their steel toe-capped brethren. They tend to be lighter in weight (up to 30% in some cases) and less cumbersome to wear, putting much less strain on our workers, particularly if they are on their feet or walking around site all day long. For those workers who travel frequently, or enter high security zones, these composite materials also have the advantage of not setting off metal detectors or showing up as something suspicious on body scanners (a sometimes entirely innocent, but embarrassing moment, for some people). As these materials are non-metallic, we can also eliminate (or significantly reduce) the chance of the occurrence of an electrical incident. Another advantage is that composite-cap boots will not conduct heat or cold very easily, again providing better comfort for workers in extremely hot/cold environments. This all sounds fantastic, but before you rush out and buy your “bullet-proof” material boots, bear in mind that for heavy impacts and puncture protection, steel toecaps tend to fair better against their counterparts. So, way up the pros and cons of each type of boot before you go out and buy them.
Some footwear, as we mentioned before, can also be designed for specific purposes. Welders’ boots have a special Metatarsal Guard. The Metatarsals are the long bones in your foot (think of the bones that English professional footballers Wayne Rooney and David Beckham broke, and how long it took them to recover from those injuries). This guard covers the whole of the top of the boot, protecting the welder from any sparks that may drop down onto their feet. The material these boots are made of is usually very resistant to high temperatures. Bear in mind, that does not mean they are impenetrable; they just give the worker enough time to feel the heat, and get the boot off, before suffering any burns or heat-related injuries. Anti-static footwear is made of material that will prevent any build-up of static electricity. This is particularly useful in worksites with hazardous zoning requirements, particularly Petro-Chemical sites, or sites that may contain explosive atmospheres, as this will help prevent fires and explosions. Some footwear is now designed to have slip-resistant soles, or additions to the bottom of the footwear, to prevent slips, trips and falls from occurring (think studs in a football boot, or spikes for a mountain climber’s shoes). We have already mentioned that steel toe-caps are probably the best protection against sharp objects, but some footwear now also has puncture resistant soles, perfect for workers who are always walking on surfaces that have sharp edges, or contain sharp materials (scattered nails, metal offcuts, and so on).
Choosing the right footwear, in combination with an overall “holistic” approach to safety will pay dividends in the long run. I can testify to the effectiveness of safety boots in action. My own cousin had his foot run over by a 5-ton counterbalance forklift truck. The only harm to come from that incident was a scuff mark on the top of the boot, and a couple of cigarettes for him to smoke in order to de-stress. I myself have had several instances when I worked “on the shop floor”, and made a mistake or had some other type of incident, but because I was wearing the correct footwear I was protected.
As always conduct a thorough risk assessment of your business, and the hazards posed by your activities. Speak to the workforce about this, particularly when selecting the right footwear. Have “fitting and trial” sessions, where workers can provide you with feedback and the footwear’s comfort and effectiveness. This will save a lot of hassle and stress for everyone concerned, and will also make the workers feel valued, as you involve them in the process. The last thing you want to do is buy 1,000 pairs of safety boots and protective equipment that is not relevant, or that no one will use. Specialists, Consultants, PPE manufacturers, providers and suppliers will be more than happy to help you with this. Often these companies will send samples for you to try with absolutely no obligation to buy. Also remember, this is an investment. Making use of the right equipment will mean long-lasting protection for the workers, with the tangible side effects of improved morale, improved quality and consistency of work, and improved safety performance as a whole. Don’t “foot the bill” long-term, by buying poor quality, cheap, ineffective gear in the short-term. Put your best foot forward, for effective footwear protection in the workplace.