Industrial work environments pose hazards to all areas of an employee’s body, and feet are no exception. That’s why safety footwear, primarily hard boots, are mandatory for jobs in sectors like construction, factory work, forestry and any other industry in which foot injury — including impact, compression and puncture — is a particular risk.
But how should an employer select the proper footwear for workers? That depends on the specific hazards of the workplace. It helps to consult CSA Standard Z195-09, or Protective Footwear, to get an idea of how to select safety footwear according to the potential dangers.
“Leaders of different work environments need to make sure they understand what their true needs are according to the reality of the workers they employ,” explains Jerry Hould, business-development director with Royer, a footwear manufacturer based in Lac Drolet, Quebec. “There are hundreds of options on the market. Workers often forget to choose their boots according to their work environment instead of only looks and aesthetics. Workers should adapt their choices with their real daily needs on the job.”
Get with the program
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton, Ontario advises employers to assess their work environments and all job duties for risks such as the following:
— objects falling onto or hitting feet;
— dangerous materials that the worker handles;
— equipment or machinery that could roll over feet;
— sharp or pointy objects on or near the floor or ground;
— potential exposure to electric, explosive or conductive equipment;
— slippery surfaces;
— uneven walking surfaces; or
— water or other liquids on the ground.
CCOHS also recommends a comprehensive foot-safety protection program that involves selection, fit testing, training, maintenance and inspection. Royer, which has been producing safety footwear for workers since 1934, offers its own program called APPFI, which stands for Analysis Prevention Program — Foot Injury.
“At Royer, we specialize in evaluating the different environments; we audit what key features are needed, and then we can propose the right boot for the right job,” says Hould, who calls APPFI “the perfect tool to evaluate, recommend and ultimately source the right product.”
APPFI involves three meetings between Royer staff and the prospective buyer. The first meeting consists of an initial presentation, the planning of a date for a departmental study of potential foot hazards and the confirmation of attendance at the study by a health and safety committee representative with the employer. The second meeting consists of the departmental study, accompanied by the committee rep, leading to an agreement on the main ideas of the study report.
Finally, the third meeting is a presentation of the report to the company’s health and safety committee, with a proposal of the recommended adapted styles, a session for planning measurements and the final selection.
“We always put emphasis on telling employers to clearly identify what their needs are and then look for the product and brand that offers the best boot for the task needed,” adds Hould. “Being a direct manufacturer helps us to adapt key features and solutions to a wide variety of designs, and that’s something unique we do.”
Fit is an important factor in selecting protective footwear, according to CCOHS. Workers should walk around in new footwear to make sure it’s comfortable. When laced, work boots should fit snugly around the heel and ankle, with toes no less than 1.25 centimetres from the front of each boot. Selection of foot protection should also take into consideration the donning of extra socks or special arch supports, and high-cut boots can offer additional ankle protection.
“Back in the day, a boot was just a necessity. Now, workers have realized that it’s more than that,” says Francis Lacroix, Royer’s innovation director. “It’s a tool. In fact, it’s an essential tool for their work, since they wear the boots all day.” Because foot protection is necessary to don at all times, comfort is a very important factor; an uncomfortable pair of boots will distract from the task at hand and possibly even create additional safety risks in the process.
Lacroix points out that comfort is one of the most common innovations in modern safety footwear, and many boots now come with metal-free construction — meaning that steel toes are replaced with composite toes and steel plates with Kevlar. “The new metal-free products offer lighter boots, more flexible boots and less cold conductive boots,” he says. “This trend is also present in the composition of outsoles, where rubber is now combined or substituted with compounds like PU and TPU.”
Durability is another aspect that foot-protection manufacturers are always looking for ways to improve. But it can be a challenge to find the perfect balance between tough boots and comfortable boots, Lacroix says. “There was a time when boots were tough, but not comfortable. Then came comfortable boots with no toughness. Now, the challenge is to offer the best of both worlds.”
Boots with slip resistance and breathable, waterproof membranes are other common developments today. And although attractive design is not one of the top factors one should consider in safety footwear, it’s another area in which manufacturers are continually innovating. “There is a big trend in offering boots with style,” says Lacroix. “Not so long ago, safety boots all looked about the same. Now, workers want to work with style — the boots being not only a commodity, but also a way of life.”
Everywhere a sign
Another useful criterion for finding the right work boots is their coloured symbols, which identify the type of protection provided. A green or yellow triangle with a circled “R” denotes puncture protection, for example, while a blue or grey rectangle represents a protective toe without a protective sole, and a white rectangle featuring an “omega” symbol denotes electric-shock resistance.
To maintain safety footwear so that it lasts longer, CCOHS recommends inspecting boots for damage on a regular basis and using a protective, water-resistant coating on them. Also bear in mind that electric-shock resistance loses a lot of its potency with water exposure and with wear-and-tear. Defective footwear should always be repaired or replaced immediately.
As with all personal protective equipment, selection and care are important things to focus on to get the best out of one’s safety boots. It’s the best way to keep one foot ahead of a workplace’s hazards.