OHS Canada Magazine

Safety shoes take athletic turn

Comfortable fashion choices the trend in foot protection


Safety footwear is taking a turn towards a more athletic style. (Submitted)

Even throughout the changes of a pandemic, athletic and fashion trends continue to transform the direction of safety footwear.

“Our shoe walls look nothing like they would have a decade ago,” said Michael Hampton, marketing manager at Mister Safety Shoes, a shoe retailer in Toronto. “It looks like you’re walking into a general shoe store or an athletic store. What you’re looking at on the wall does not scream ‘safety shoe’ or ‘work boot’ like it used to.”

Many workers are attracted to safety footwear with designs that are similar to athletic shoes or hiking boots, mainly because those styles are much more comfortable.

Customers who enjoy walking around in Timberland’s iconic Original Yellow Boot can maintain that fashion sense on the job with a pair of Timberland PRO’s waterproof work boots. The boots share the same design as the lifestyle version, but are waterproof, have alloy toes, puncture-resistant plates, and meet CSA requirements.

“We’ve seen a huge number of young consumers going that direction,” explained Pier-Alexandre Jean, sales manager for Timberland PRO in Canada, in Montreal. “They want something that would look the same as what they would wear typically in the evenings or on the weekends, but they want to have the protection throughout their workday. It’s been a huge success.”

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The company is launching more safety footwear that is modelled after athletic brands, he said.

The increase in individuals working on home renovations through COVID-19 has resulted in more customers buying athletic-styled safety footwear, said Jean.

The company will soon launch its Radius line of safety shoes. These shoes have the same design as the company’s athletic footwear.

But regional differences still matter. For example, he said, athletic-styled footwear is more popular in Ontario and Quebec, where warehouse and manufacturing jobs are more common.

Customers in British Columbia or the Maritime provinces often prefer hiking-styled boots.

Real-world knowledge critical when online shopping

The pandemic forced many customers to purchase their safety footwear without the advice of an in-person product specialist. Most purchases were made online.

Even if in-store shopping was available, physical distancing limited the ability of sales associates to help insure proper fit.

This requires customers to have a thorough understanding of what their workplaces require in their footwear, and what products meet those expectations.

Foot protection still No. 1, even as fashion improves

Customers “have more time to research,” according to Mark Ducharme, vice-president of sales in Canada for Baffin in Stoney Creek, Ont.

Increased screen time has created more opportunities for individuals to learn about the multiple products available to them, he said.

People “really want things that are specifically designed for what they’re going to be using them for, rather than more general-application items,” explained Ducharme.

Knowing that products have been tested in the situations where they’re meant to be used is especially important when looking for slip-resistant footwear.

A growing number of products are made to be slip-resistant, said Rochelle Lovatt-Waddell, associate vice-president of safety footwear at Mark’s in Calgary, Alta.

“Most of the accidents in the workplace can be related to slips, trips and falls,” she said. “One of the areas where we see continued growth is slip resistance on ice.”

Mark’s works with different companies and manufacturers to ensure customers have access to products that can keep them safe on icy surfaces.

This includes stocking footwear that has been tested with people walking across icy surfaces.

Choosing the right shoe can make all the difference

Baffin products are all tested in the environments where they are intended to be used.

“We are as authentic as it comes,” said Ducharme.

Baffin’s Ice Bear boots, for example, can be comfortably worn in temperatures ranging from 20 C to -50 C. The Grip 360 rubber boots keep workers stable on many wet environments.

“If you’re doing a lot of hosing down on stainless steel, you’re going to be able to improve your slip resistance” with these boots, said Ducharme, noting that an increased focus on cleaning and sanitation throughout COVID-19 has resulted in more demand for rubber boots.

Some companies, like Amazon, require workers to have metal-free footwear, said Jean, at Timberland.

“Metal-free shoes are more and more a big component,” he said.

Timberland offers several products that don’t contain metal, and while this makes the footwear lighter to wear, it does increase the retail price of the shoe, said Jean.

Fashion can increase comfort, decrease accidents

Customers always want lightweight footwear, regardless of current fashion trends, noted Ducharme.

“A design trend can’t be gimmicky. It’s got to add value to the product itself. It’s got to make it more comfortable. It’s got to make it lighter weight. It’s got to make it perform properly.”

The growing popularity of boots that can be pulled on, and shoes without laces, is an example of a fashion trend with built-in safety benefits, said Jackie Curry, product manager at Mister Safety Shoes.

“Some industries don’t want laces because the laces could catch on something,” Curry explained. “It’s actually an improved safety (measure). There’s some factories that have very high heat applications and you may need to get your boot off very quickly.”

Timberland and Baffin both offer products without laces, and products that can be pulled on.

Breaking In Work Boots: Dos and Don’ts

As safety footwear becomes increasingly comfortable and incorporates more fashionable colours and designs, some workers may find themselves wearing their safety shoes or boots after their shift ends, if their employer allows them. That may not be the best for the footwear, since added exposure and wear can shorten the time it is effective.

Jean recommended that, when possible, workers rotate which pair of footwear that they wear. If that’s not feasible, they need to make sure their footwear is dried between uses.

“If you give the shoe time to dry and make sure that you put them back on when they’re fully dried, then you will have an impact on the durability of the inside of the lining,” he said.

When shopping for new products, customers need to pay attention to any discomfort they may feel around the toes. “How it fits is going to be very important for how long term you will be comfortable in the boot,” said Lovatt-Waddell.

“A safety toe is not going to stretch. If there’s any tightness or discomfort around the toe, that is probably not the boot for you,” she explained, adding that it’s best to try on new shoes or boots at the end of the day when feet are likely more tired and swollen.

No matter their style preferences, workers need to remember that comfort can be key to ensuring they stay focused and safe at work.

“There is a lot of discussion out there about distracted working and keeping workplaces safe,” said Hampton. “We keep thinking that there’s a place for safety footwear to contribute there too. If your feet are heavy, or hurting, you may not be paying as much attention to the things that you’re supposed to in your work environment.”

“It’s one less thing to worry about.”

Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto.

This Safety Gear feature appears in the July/August 2021 issue of OHS Canada.


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