Selecting the Correct Protective Footwear

Stepping into safety

by James Pretty


Our feet. Where to start? In terms of human development they are one of the first things we learn to use and from there they function instinctively, but remembering to keep them safe from hazards doesn’t always come so naturally.

The mastery of taking our first steps is one of the key early milestones – that tentative first step is a proud moment for every parent and child. Over years of practice and conditioning, the feet become (as you’d expect) an integral part of our way of life. They can help move us over great distances, jump, climb, or allow us to stand for a long time. A strong foot, solidly planted on a surface, can help us support ourselves, particularly when holding objects. Or we can delicately balance on our toes like a ballerina, but in a lot of cases, perhaps not as gracefully

If we do not look after our feet then many issues can arise, particularly if we wear the wrong footwear. There are many things we can do to prevent foot injury and other associated health issues, such as adapting the task, the work environment and so on. In this article, however, our topic focus will be on the importance of safety footwear, and some of the different types available. We will also discuss some of their features and safety footwear technology, what to consider during selection, and what foot problems we are trying to prevent.

Knock on complications

An injury or issue with just one foot can be extremely debilitating, limiting our independence and ability to move around freely. So imagine if we had an issue with both feet. In a lot of cases, we would be totally reliant on other people to assist us with mobility. This creates many problems, not just an issue with walking.

Scaffolders and other people working at height would not be able to climb ladders. Athletes would have trouble running or jumping, or taking the strain when balancing, or lifting heavy weights. Some workers would be limited to specific jobs or roles, as foot issues would prevent them from performing certain tasks and accessing certain areas (such as scaffolding, tower cranes, confined spaces). Indeed, a long-term foot issue could limit a person’s employability. This could have devastating consequences if that person provides the only income for their household, especially if they have a family to support. So, what foot problems could we and our workforce have?

Potential ailments

It could be something simple, such as blisters, corns or hardened skin causing pain. Sprains, strains and other muscle injuries are a common occurrence. It may be a water-related issue such as trench foot, or something related to temperature such as frostbite. Or it could even go as far as broken bones, or partial/total amputation of the foot or toes. Some of these issues are easily curable with medication, simple remedies, physiotherapy, or maybe even just completely resting the foot or feet. Others, however, would need a much more extreme approach, such as surgical intervention, or the fitting of prosthetic limbs. A person may have to rely on the use of a cane, crutches or walking frame in order to be able to walk around. Others with extremely limited mobility may have to depend upon a wheelchair or mobility scooter. Even using stairs may require a dependence on the use of elevators, or a stair lift.

It’s not just the issues we can see

We should not only be concerned with the physical issues, however, as there would also be the degradation of mental wellbeing, and associated negative consequences, to consider. Workers who suffer such injuries for the long term could become extremely frustrated at their inability to work, and indeed lead a normal life, leading to issues such as stress and depression.

Even once they have recovered and return to work, there may be a problem of lack of confidence. In other words, the worker could be worried about whether or not the foot could take the stresses and strains that it was used to, prior to the injury occurring.

Two good examples of this would be the cases and careers of professional footballer players Michael Owen, and Wayne Rooney. They both suffered a broken metatarsal bone injury during their careers. Think of the metatarsals as the support structures, or “bridges” crossing between and joining the toes and the heel. Footballers need their feet not only to run and jump, and for balance, but also to be able to strike the ball accurately using the correct technique and force depending on whether they are passing, crossing, shooting, dribbling, performing a trick etc.

The reason I have used these professional athletes as examples, is because whilst they both initially recovered from their injuries, they did suffer from some long term consequences. Wayne Rooney suffered his metatarsal injury in May 2006, but managed to recover enough to be considered for the World Cup tournament six weeks later. Whilst he was selected as part of the England squad, he was only fit enough to start his tournament in the second group game. He did not score a goal in any games he played, and clearly lacked both the confidence and physical fitness he needed to perform as he could have, at the elite level.

In the same year, Michael Owen had a similar issue, which ultimately required a metal pin having to be put into his foot. After the surgery, his leg was put into a protective “plaster cast”, a common practice for fractures, and other broken bone injuries. As he could not use his leg, however, it weakened. This ultimately contributed to a serious knee injury ruling him out of action for the entirety of the next football season, as he did not spend enough time fully recovering. He should have spent a longer rehabilitation period rebuilding the muscles and strength in his leg, instead of trying to rush back to be considered for the World Cup Tournament.

Financial impact

So, is the problem of foot related injuries really such a big deal? Foot injuries are common for professional footballers and other athletes, simply due to the nature of their occupation. So, is it a big problem for other industries and businesses? Absolutely. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2006 there were more than 60,000 foot related injuries, that caused workers to take time away from their place of work. It does not sound like many instances for such a large, populous place like America, until you take into account the average cost of these injuries, which was estimated to be $9,600 USD per person. That is $576 Million USD for one year! A huge amount of money for any enterprise, especially when compared with the relatively small cost of a pair of safety boots. ( a-cure-for-common-foot-hazards.aspx).

The root of the problems

So how can these problems occur?

As highlighted in the case of the footballers, it could be that we rush the worker back to work, not giving them sufficient time to recover from the initial issue. The problem or injury could result from something relatively simple, such as a slip, trip or fall, or striking the foot against an object. The foot could even be crushed by something, such as a dropped object, or being run over by a vehicle wheel/treads. There could be an issue with feet being trapped, or cuts and burns could occur in various scenarios (the classic “hot spark dropping into a boot” being one of them).

It could even be the footwear itself that is the problem. It may be unsuitable for the work environment or surface being walked/stood upon, or the footwear may simply fit incorrectly (be too big or small for the wearer). The footwear could have degraded through excess use, or poor quality of materials or manufacturing. Some of these foot-related issues may even occur due to people wearing open shoes (such as sandals), or even from not wearing footwear at all. So, the next question to address, is what kinds of safety footwear there are, and what features do they have?

“the technological advancements in safety footwear are ever expanding to protect against other various hazards”

Safety feature

The simple answer… lots. There is an abundance of designers, manufacturers and suppliers around the world, such as Caterpillar, Redwing, Dewalt and Dr Martens, all offering a vast range of various products for various markets; according to one report, the global safety footwear market was worth $3.29 Billion USD in 2015 (https:// industrial-protective-footwearmarket). This footwear could be something simple such as regular office shoes, or could be more complex items such as waterproof or heat resistant footwear.

It is often the case that safety footwear is specifically designed for a certain industry, environment or type of work. For example, people working in situations where slipping is a risk (ice, oil spills, etc) may use footwear with soles made of slip-resistant materials. In high risk industries, such as construction and onshore/offshore oil and gas, workers are often required to use footwear with steel toecaps. This just used to be in the form of a boot, but you can now also purchase steel toecap ankle boots, formal shoes, wellington boots, and even trainers.

Technological advancements

The technological advancements in safety footwear are ever expanding to protect against other various hazards. Some footwear not only has a steel toecap, but also a penetration proof sole, preventing injury through the bottom of the boot or shoe. Some footwear has an element of heat resistance. Foundry boots can be bought that can resist splashes of molten metal reaching incredible temperatures approaching 1,400ºC! You can even buy footwear that is “intrinsically safe”, as they are designed to prevent electrostatic build up, particularly useful for high-risk facilities in the petrochemical industries (having something that could produce a spark near flammable gasses etc is not a good thing, as I am sure you would agree). Welders can use welder’s boots, specifically designed with a metatarsal guard on top of the boot, protecting the entirety of the top of the foot from hot metal sparks and other hazards.

Footwear is also now designed not only to protect from physical work hazards, but also prevent other health issues. Lots of safety footwear is designed to be “breathable”. This prevents moisture and heat building up in the shoe, by limiting sweating, lessoning the risk from the associated health impacts, such as athlete’s foot and fungus. Safety footwear is also becoming lighter in weight, easing the strain being carried by the feet. Designers and manufacturers are also using softer, more flexible materials. This means there is less chance of blisters etc. caused by chafing and rubbing on the skin, providing the users with the additional benefit of greater comfort. Some safety footwear is totally metal free, but still offers the same protection as a traditional steel toecap boot, with the toe being made of aluminium, thermoplastic polyurethane (PTU) or other composite materials. In Holland, you can even purchase traditional, wooden, whole feet clogs such as the Klomp, that are safety compliant! So how do you know what safety footwear is right for your workers and organisation?

Choosing the right footwear

Firstly, whatever footwear you choose, it is important to have fit-testing sessions with the workforce. This is to ensure that the workers get the appropriate sizes, and they are comfortable wearing what has been purchased. It is also a good idea to purchase a sample for some of the workers to try out. This way, they can provide you with the appropriate feedback. They themselves may even be able to give you recommendations based upon footwear they have used in the past. Another reason you may want to purchase samples from different manufacturers, is to test their claims about the footwear’s performance. All of this is important, as the last thing any business needs is to purchase hundreds of boots that workers will not wear, or footwear that will not perform as advertised.

You should also consider the specific tasks, and associated hazards, that the workers are involved with. Again, a generic steel toe-cap boot may be sufficient for the job. However, you may require specific footwear, such as boots for welders, or slip-resistant footwear.

The work environment should also be taken into account. Wet environments will need footwear that is waterproof; hot environments will require heat resistant footwear; and cold environments will require footwear with a thermal lining.

Some sites and companies may also have specific requirements for safety footwear. Are they lace-up or non-lace? Do they have to meet any specific safety ratings or standards (such as EN ISO 20345:2011 for Europe, or AS/NZS 2210.3:2009 for Australia/New Zealand)? Are they one-time or limited use only (such as when working with radioactive or other hazardous substances/materials)? You would also need to consider any specific regulations or legislation, as this may change from location to location. You could even use “bench-marking” to compare your site or business to those that are similar, and see what safety footwear products they use.


As you can see, safety footwear is not just about having your workers stick on some steel toecap boots and off to work they go. There are many different but equally important factors to consider, not just comfort, durability and cost. As I mentioned before, involving the workforce in the testing and selection of safety footwear can save you a lot of headaches. If there are still doubts or concerns, work closely with suppliers and manufacturers so you can research and choose the appropriate footwear for your business. Alternatively, as with any safety topic, you could approach safety consultants and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) specialists.

Also think about the bigger picture. We focused specifically on footwear in this article. However, as always, safety is a large all-encompassing part of any business, so also look at other additional control measures you could put into place. This could include things such as using non-slip surfaces, softer flooring materials (e.g. carpet instead of tiles), giving workers plenty of breaks and rest areas so they are not on their feet all day, maybe even installing items such as escalators, lifts and travellators if appropriate. Take the time to step back and fully consider all the factors related to safety footwear, so you can put both feet forward and “step into safety” for everyone.

Author Details

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James Pretty

HSE professional, holding Technician status with the Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (TechIOSH). James is an approved NEBOSH and IOSH Trainer, and specialises in Materials Handling Equipment Training, for which he is a qualified instructor through ITSSAR (International Trading Standards Scheme and Register), and RTITB (Road Transport Industry Training Board).

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