Glancing over previous articles in various SHE publications, I am blatantly aware of the quantity of literature with which we are bombarded on a frequent basis regarding the benefits of so-and-so’s branded footwear.

The iconic model-employee, staring through his rose-tinted safety glasses whilst boasting a pair of sought after safety boots that make him appear invincible and that should something heavy fall on his foot, the material itself would suffer the consequence, not the employee! This being said, it is somewhat tongue in cheek as often I find myself rumbling through a dusty pile of Paraphernalia in order to source that one article or pamphlet that in my distant memory could be the solution to our company’s footwear protection requirements.

Admittedly, I do rely on the advice of PPE professionals to keep me abreast of what is new on the market as well as keeping me in the loop in terms of level of protection versus affordability…

“if you want to forget about your life’s problems, wear uncomfortable shoes”

I cannot for one minute presume to be able to unleash the secrets of safety footwear to an audience of this calibre. I would undoubtedly be rehashing all safety footwear facts and myths that you have all read, and perhaps forgotten, just to re-read. However, what I can offer is some real life, past experiences of accidents that have occurred in my time as holding the title of Safety Practitioner in a heavy engineering / manufacturing environment and share some valuable lessons learnt in terms of protective footwear and feet-at-work whilst on my personal yellow brick road of discovery. 

Just because the shoe fits….

Rewind to 2014, and any large manufacturing concern requires the services of a dedicated quality assurance team. This was the case of the company by whom I was employed at the time, dedicated to performing amongst other tasks, a series of non-destructive testing (NDT) techniques at various stages throughout the manufacturing process. The team in question were a relatively young bunch at the time. All cool and captivating with their funky haircuts and couture. This team were rendered a relatively low-risk group of employees when one considered the scale of operations and the high-risk jobs tasked to other individuals. Until, that was, one early Tuesday morning in the height of summer.

A call was made to notify the safety department that an accident had occurred, involving one of the QA Inspectors.

On arrival at the scene, the injured party had suffered rather severe lacerations to both of his legs after suffering a fall. The investigation revealed that a large amount of grinding debris had been left on a job following dressing / grinding. The Inspector had climbed onto said job to conduct NDT on the welds. A slip and fall due to the unkept surface had been earmarked as a sub cause. This, coupled with the pressure to get the job done, lack of adequate supervision in ensuring the job was safe to inspect and the fact that the employee did not find the slippery surface any cause for concern, were motives that required further investigation and action. It turned out, however, that these contributing factors were not the end of the story. 

During the process of interviewing witnesses, (a practice of which I cannot emphasise the value of performing as part of the investigation process, regardless of the severity of the incident) the question arose as to whether had I seen the fantastic new safety shoes that the injured had been sporting? 

I reverted to the injured, and the information revealed that the shoes had in fact been acquired by the young man from his sister, who had sourced them on her overseas travels and had thought them quite the gift to bestow on her young brother (who in her mind, spent all day on his feet and she wished to alleviate his burden of being forced to wear regulated safety footwear).

Behold the shoes: a pair of (no decipherable brand name of which to speak), slip- on, I repeat, slip on, style shoes. The outer soles of which were as smooth as silk. They did boast a toecap of sorts; of what Joule rating if any remains unsolved. No need for further elaboration, but it did beg the question: where on earth would such footwear be deemed appropriate? Well, certainly not in an establishment where due consideration was given to the oil and slip resistance, penetration rating and shock absorbency combined with good old-fashioned comfort and durability. So, lesson learned, never assume that employees are wearing what has been issued. Supervisors, safety personnel and employees alike are tasked with performing random, documented checks or inspections on what footwear is lurking below, with stricter measures enforced as to employee compliance and training on why this is necessary. Never assume this is information is simply common sense.

Reclamation of ‘’used’’ PPE

“What size shoe do you wear?”

“Your size”

In my personal experience, the question as raised above has been answered in this manner on many occasions. To clarify, the person asked does not care. If you are desperate enough, anything fits.

Now may be a good time to recognise the importance of the reclamation of ‘’used’’ PPE, including footwear. This is somewhat important in a country, namely South Africa, where the fight against the economic challenge is a consistent one. 

I have encountered cases where PPE has not been recovered on the issue of the latest and greatest thus resulting in the new footwear being reserved for more elite gatherings such as church services or social obligations.

Sad, but a sign of the times. One cannot operate professionally without giving due consideration to the economic conditions to which many are challenged. It becomes a struggle when an employee is found to be wearing his old, dog eared, perished soled safety boots when a brand-new pair has indeed been issued. 

“never assume that employees are wearing what has been issued”

This places the employee at risk where it would not be the case, had he been wearing the latest issue. Such instances place Safety Professionals in a precarious position amid the socio-economic problems and must be handled with care and empathy. 

The question of, “How can old boots simply be destroyed when so many of the population do not even own a pair of shoes?’’ is a tough one. Taking the time to adequately Inform employees and ensuring they understand the risk factors of re-using or continued use of non-effective or potentially contaminated boots is critical to buy-in and support. 

Taking the time and being aware of the fact that we are not all blessed with the same privileges, goes a long way in assisting to create a workforce who respects what is attempting to be achieved.

Footloose does not equal injury free….

The complications as noted above have called to mind a few additional issues when referring to the basic rules of footwear at the workplace. The principle of back to basics can never be underestimated in many organisations. 

More often than I would care to reveal, I have encountered employees who have been spotted working in a position where it is easy to identify that the person in question, is not wearing any socks. The wearing of safety boots without socks in a climate such as Africa immediately brings a host of concerns to mind prior to even reaching those related to safety.

Hygiene and comfort being the first that spring to mind. To most, it may be inconceivable to imagine pulling on a pair of work boots without socks. To others, it does not factor as a major for a variety of reasons. 

The excuses I have encountered have included, ‘’I only own two pairs and they are both dirty’’,

“it’s been raining all week” and even, “my wife is angry with me, so she hasn’t done the washing”.

A reminder that common sense is not as common as we sometimes think. 

Basic safety footwear training such as my own module includes the hazards of not wearing socks and how to get around only owing two pairs.

Foot hygiene and an emphasis on the fundamentals must be included for many employees to grasp the importance.

Boot Laces have posed a similar dilemma. Laces, as we know are often hard working and an item that are put under strain on a daily basis which leads them to eventually break. 

“Despite all the procedures and control measures that may be in place and are mandatory to be complied with by yourself and others, things do not always go to plan”

Boot laces are an often underestimated yet vital component in ensuring that safety boots are effective.     

Training employees as to the necessity of ensuring laces are in fact in place and tightly secure, to the top of the boots is required within my organisation. To many, this may seem like spoon feeding and the epitome of nanny state control; however, I have experienced the consequences of ignorance. The fact that the complete level of protection offered to ankles is significantly reduced when boots are laced only halfway is a point that needs to be highlighted to many individuals who do not give a second thought to something as inconspicuous as boot laces.

I have had to swallow the bitter pillof being condemned by others for sometimes stating the obvious. I have, however, learned to ignore such criticism with the view that if I oversee the small stuff it may lead to consequences that may have been otherwise avoidable. I find it a matter of learning who your audience is and what information they may need from you. This, rather than assuming that everyone is of the same educational background and have encountered the same experiences.

Fools tread where angels fear to go

The train of thought about the act of tying laces summons the memory of one of the worst foot accidents I have witnessed.

It was a balmy summer evening as morning rolled into afternoon shift. Handover had barely been completed between the supervisory staff as the accident occurred. A Boilermaker had been given instruction as to his workload for the evening by one of the Foremen, prior to him leaving for the day.  

The two shared a common bond as their wives were friendly with each other and stood exchanging a few words before the Foremen retired for the day. At the time, the boilermaker was standing close to a thick piece of off-cut steel plate elevated by four supports approximately 30cm from the ground. He noticed his boot lace was not secure and bent to tighten it by placing his right foot on the edge of the suspended plate. Within seconds, his weight had tipped the plate causing it to fall, jagged edges and all, straight onto his left foot that was positioned beneath the plate. 

Investigation revealed that the off-cut had been the remnant of a larger plate, cut a few hours earlier. A host of rules had been broken prior to the Boilermaker placing his foot on the plate however the damage was done. It is a given that the Gas Cutter should not have left the plate in this precarious position, that the Rigger should have made sure the remnants were secure and stable and that the Supervision should have ticked all these boxes, yet it did not happen.

The employee suffered open fractures to four toes causing him to be unable to work for approximately two and a half months. A seemingly innocent act had almost caused a permanent disability. Fortunately, the employee recovered in full.

Despite all the procedures and control measures that may be in place and are mandatory to be complied with by yourself and others, things do not always go to plan. The takeaway from this scenario is that one should always take cognisance of where one steps or places your foot before taking that step. Do not presume anything is safe

before personally taking a few seconds to confirm things are as you perceive them to be.

Step into my office….

Personnel who work without the hazards of entering or working in an industrial setting are one of life’s biggest challenges as a Safety Professional with reference to safety footwear. 

Agreed! The likelihood of a large, heavy load falling onto one’s foot in an office environment is minimal, but there are other hazards to consider.

Stairs. I am fully aware of the implications involved with insulting the intelligence of the white-collar tribe by instructing them how to properly ascend and descend stairwells however, there is a reason behind it all. 

Top view construction worker on construction site

With finishes such as tiles, wood, concrete, or otherwise have the potential to cause serious injury. Slips and falls on stairwells may lead to the nature of injury that can result in employees’ becoming permanently disabled or seeking medical treatment for a prolonged length of time.  

A factor to consider in lowering this risk is ultimately the type of footwear permitted in the office environment. This is a major bone of contention into which I do not wish to venture further! I simply mean to highlight the concern and encourage Office folk and Safety Professionals alike to work at an amicable footwear policy resulting in
an arrangement that can be feasible for all parties.

Put your feet up…

No matter who we are, with all our quirks and differences, all people have a couple of days at the very least, throughout the working year where they just want to get home and put their feet up.

Let us give our feet the respect they deserve and wear the appropriate footwear to support their hard work!