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The Origin of Safety Shoes

Because shoes are easier to replace than feet

Footwear and foot protection can be found from the beginning of the 20th century, when industrial safety gear first became an issue. Previously it was cheaper to replace an injured worker than to introduce safety measures.

The first protective boots were wooden boots, called sabots. A sabot can be defined as a kind of simple shoe, shaped and hollowed out from a single block of wood, traditionally worn by French and Breton peasants. These protected workers from falling objects. Sabots protected farmers on the field from sharp objects and protected toes in case a horse or cow stepped on them. During the early industrial revolution, workers used sabots to destroy machinery by throwing them into the gears of factories to stop production. The word sabotage came from this activity.

These boots were invented at the end of World War II in Germany. These were originally meant for workers to help protect themselves as they worked. Before these boots were invented, workers used to wear leather boots or wooden clogs. Currently, however, several other users including civilians and military personnel use these boots.

The birth of safety

The history of the safety boots can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century at a time when people started addressing industrial safety issues. During this time the laws on compensation were enacted. Before this period, replacing an injured worker was cheaper and faster than introducing safety measures. Liability costs, however, made many large companies start focusing on having equipment that was safer to use than before. In the 1930s, Red Wing Shoes Company started dealing in steel-toe boots. German marching boots that were used by the officers who were not commissioned in the World War II were also reinforced using metal toecaps.

The US Congress in 1970 enacted an Act that was aimed at ensuring that workers operated in a safe environment called the Occupational Safety and Health Act. 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.

Unlike many other protective gadgets, safety boots have continued to develop to reflect the current fashions. The 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 reinforcement, other composite materials or even plastics may be used for the same purpose. (Work Place Protective Clothing, 2013).

The Dutch State Mines (DSM) decided to create suitable employment for injured miners; one such initiative became a specialist shoe factory dedicated to providing miners with safer, sturdier and more supportive footwear.

Foot protection includes safety footwear that is an essential part of the personal protective equipment element for the worker to ensure safe and healthy feet. Correspondingly, the supplementary provision for the front part of the shoes/ boot is the introduction of the steel toe. As an addition in the boot/ shoes it protects the feet and helps to prevent injuries. The steel toe also reduces the severity of injuries which may occur within the workplace. Importantly, it is considered the last line of defence in the hierarchy of risk control.

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.

Foot protection means guarding your toes, ankles and feet from injury. Each foot contains 26 bones for support and 38 joints for movement. Feet also have blood vessels, ligaments, muscles and nerves, which is why it hurts when you stub your toe or drop something on your foot. Your feet are a critical part of your body that you use every day and, in some cases, enable you to do your job effectively.

Protective footwear worn in the workplace is designed to protect the foot from physical hazards such as falling objects, stepping on sharp objects, heat and cold, wet and slippery surfaces, or exposure to corrosive chemicals.

There are two major categories of workrelated foot injuries. The first category includes foot injuries from punctures, crushing, sprains, and lacerations. They account for 10 percent of all reported disabling injuries. The second group of injuries includes those resulting from slips, trips, and falls. They account for 15 percent of all reported disabling injuries. Slips and falls do not always result in a foot injury, but lack of attention to foot safety plays an important role in their occurrence.

When purchasing safety footwear ensure the following qualities have been applied:

  • The inner side of the shoe must be straight from the heel to the end of the big toe
  • The shoe must grip the heel firmly
  • The forepart must allow freedom of movement for the toes
  • The shoe must have a fastening across the instep to prevent the foot from slipping when walking
  • The shoe must have a low, wide-based heel; flat shoes are recommended

People buying footwear for work should take the following advice:

  • Do not expect that footwear that is too tight will stretch with wear
  • Have both feet measured when buying shoes – feet normally differ in size
  • Buy shoes to fit the bigger foot
  • Buy shoes late in the afternoon when feet are likely to be swollen to their maximum size
  • Consider purchasing shock-absorbing insoles when a job requires walking or standing on hard floors (Foot Protection, 2017)

Types of protective footwear include:

  • Steel toe footwear – protects your toes from falling objects and from being crushed
  • Metatarsal footwear – contains special guards that run from ankle to toe, protecting the entire foot
  • Reinforced sole – protects the foot from punctures
  • Latex or rubber footwear – resists chemicals and provides extra traction on slippery surfaces

The functions of safety shoes

Foot injuries can be debilitating, resulting in time away from work or difficulty performing a job. Wearing safety shoes or boots for foot protection may assist to prevent further injuries in the following ways.

When workers carry heavy materials or work in dynamic environments where many people, machines and vehicles are operating at once, falling and flying objects are common hazards. Protective shoes like steel toe boots can effectively prevent crushing injuries to the feet.

When workers could step on sharp objects or be struck by sharp objects from above, shoes with heavy-duty soles and thick materials surrounding the foot offer the best protection. At construction worksites, for example, many sharp objects could be in someone’s path. A soft-soled shoe might not provide enough protection.

Machinery that is sharp or contains moving parts can pose cutting hazards. Workers in the logging industry, for example, face dangers from chainsaws. If a chainsaw were to come in contact with someone’s foot, the result could be catastrophic. Logging boots – which are required by OSHA under standard 29 CFR 1910.266(d)(1)(v) – made with cut-resistant material will protect those workers who use chainsaws. These boots are also waterproof or water repellent and support the ankles.

Electricity poses a variety of risks in the workplace. Workers could face potential electric shocks or accumulate static electricity, which can lead to electric sparks in certain environments. To reduce the chances of an electrical accident, non-conductive footwear made from leather, rubber or other materials that don’t conduct electricity can be worn. In locations where the build-up of static on the body poses a hazard, anti-static or conductive footwear can be used. These options reduce the amount of static that accumulates on the body, preventing static electric sparks.

Slips, trips and falls can happen in any workplace and result in many accidents annually. Organisations can assist by taking proactive steps such as implementing housekeeping measures and installing anti-slip floor tape to reduce the risks of these mishaps. Proper footwear can also provide additional protection against slips, trips and falls. Shoes with appropriate traction can help prevent falls on the same level in slippery environments. They can also prevent falls from ladders, which are all too common when people don’t wear shoes with proper treads. Footwear that fits well and feels comfortable can also improve balance, which will help prevent slips, trips and falls, too.

For workers who stand all day, especially on hard surfaces like concrete, fatigue can be a real problem. Muscles in the feet as well as the legs, back and other parts of the body grow tired, and the situation can be worsened when employees don’t wear appropriate footwear. Shoes that provide adequate cushioning and arch support can make people more comfortable, which alleviates strain on muscles. This means employees will grow fatigued less quickly. Employees who are less fatigued will be more alert, so they will likely do their jobs more safely and more efficiently. Preventing muscle strain will also help protect against musculoskeletal disorders such as chronic lower back pain, too.

Burns from fire can happen in the workplace, but so can burns from chemicals and even from common workplace materials like cement. Footwear made from durable materials can prevent burns from chemicals splashes, molten metal splashes and other dangerous substances that could injure the skin on the feet.

Colder climates can lead to injuries such as frost bite and hypothermia, and those dangers shouldn’t be overlooked in the workplace. People who work outside in the winter are at risk, as well as employees who work in wet or refrigerated environments.

Furthermore, the cold can exacerbate some lesser known workplace injuries. For example, Raynaud’s Syndrome is a disease where the fingers can turn white from poor blood flow. This condition, related to vibration from power tool use, is made worse when employees are exposed to cold temperatures. In some cases, this disorder can impact the feet, too, so keeping the feet warm and comfortable in conjunction with other measures for keeping the body warm is important.

Not all footwear is waterproof or insulated to provide protection against the cold, rain and snow, so be sure to select shoe options that are made from appropriate materials.

Here are some key factors to consider when choosing a shoe:

  1. Steel toes to protect against falling objects, which cause 60% of all foot injuries. Where there are electrical hazards, a fibreglass toe should replace the typical steel toe.
  2. Good traction to protect against slips and falls, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics said were responsible for about 329,000 lost workdays in 1994. Depending on the environment, consider cleats, or a shoe with an abrasive, gritted, grooved, spiked or studded sole.
  3. Proper chemical protection. Boots and shoes made of rubber, PVC or neoprene (depending on the chemical) are needed.
  4. Employee comfort. If a shoe is unwieldy or heavy, chances are it will not be worn. Give workers a choice of footwear colours and styles but only after you are satisfied that all of those to be considered provide adequate protection.

Footwear for the workplace offers many kinds of protection for workers. For those reasons alone, it’s worth making a foot protection programme part of your workplace. By seeking recommendations from the workplace it offers collaboration, industry partnership and transparency. This is also part of the consultative process where a duty of care is owed to the workers, and should adhere to local legislative requirements where protective footwear is required.

In designing strategies to protect foot injury, one has to remember the fundamental principle of occupational health and safety: those occupational hazards should be eliminated at the source. The role of personal protective equipment is to minimise exposure to specific occupational hazards, not to eliminate them. Protective footwear does not guarantee total protection.

All working footwear should also provide comfort without compromising protective value and is fit for purpose to ensure it is functional and feasible to include the below parameters:

  1. A steel toe cap should cover the whole length of the toes from tips to beyond the natural bend of the foot. A soft pad covering the edge of the toecap increases comfort. If the toecap cuts into the foot, either the size or style of the footwear is incorrect.
  2. Soles come in a variety of thicknesses and materials. They need to be chosen according to the hazards and type(s) of flooring in the workplace.
  3. Uppers of protective footwear come in a variety of materials. Selection should take into account the hazards, and individual characteristics of the worker's foot.
  4. A steel midsole which protects the foot against penetration by sharp objects should be flexible enough to allow the foot to bend.
  5. No single type of non-slip footwear can prevent the wearer from slipping on every surface type.

Legislative requirements may need to be considered in your origin of country, so check the local compliance and regulatory legislation. It may be aligned similarly to the following:

The OSHA regulations pertaining to employee footwear are found at 29 CFR 1910.132 and 1910.136. In general, the standard requires that foot protection be used whenever it is necessary by reason of hazard of processes or environment which could cause foot injury. The OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.136(a) states:

The employer shall ensure that each affected employee uses protective footwear when working in areas where there is a danger of foot injuries due to falling or rolling objects, or objects piercing the sole, or when the use of protective footwear will protect the affected employee from an electrical hazard, such as a static-discharge or electric-shock hazard, that remains after the employer takes other necessary protective measures.

Proper footwear is important, not only for foot comfort but also for one's general wellbeing. Improper footwear can cause or aggravate existing foot problems. Unfortunately, being fashionable sometimes takes precedence over choosing well-fitting, supportive safety footwear. However, many safety footwear manufacturers produce safety footwear that does look fashionable.

The best way to involve workers in programmes to protect their feet is to provide:

  • Training and information on the health hazards of wearing improper shoes
  • Principles for selecting proper shoes
  • Simple rules of general foot care
  • Orthotics may help reduce foot issues

It is important to ensure that the organisation that provides the safety equipment is fit for purpose or use. This follows the requirement to ensure the selection is appropriate for the scope of work. In doing so it may improve safety and comfort, which will make your workers happy, and their feet too!

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Mark Da Silva
Mark Da Silva is Director of Work, Health and Safety Programmes at WorkSafe Victoria. As the Director of Programmes his remit includes leading and facilitating the delivery of the strategic health and safety improvement programmes; aimed at reducing injury, illness and fatalities in Victoria workplaces.