Putting your best foot forward

Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

When you think about Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) what is the first thing that comes to mind? For most, safety footwear is high on the list, and on the surface, this might seem like a simple ask – just make sure you provide safety footwear – but when you start to look a bit more at the question there are many other factors to consider.

Who is the footwear for? What are they doing that necessitates the protection? Are you their employer? Are they a volunteer? How do you explain all of this to your managers and procurement teams? The list goes on, and in this article, we will answer some of these burning questions and more. 

Apologies if you came here looking for a detailed review of the safety standards, there are many excellent articles and resources available to assist you with this. In this article, we will focus on the basics of safety footwear selection and the conversations that you might need to have with workers, managers, budget holders, finance, and procurement teams so that you, the safety professional, can specify footwear which will get those you support1 home safely every day. 

What exactly is safety footwear?

So, let’s start at the beginning –what exactly is safety footwear? In its simplest form, it is any footwear worn to protect the user from hazards as defined in the risk assessment for the task being undertaken. This requires you the safety professional, to review the activity and then select appropriate footwear based on the various standards that they are tested to; for example, penetration protection, toe and metatarsal protection and other factors such as water resistance. The footwear needs to be appropriate for both the task, the person, and the environment in which it is being worn. We will take these in turn and explore in more detail.

The task

The first thing you will probably look at when selecting safety footwear is the task. When doing this you will want to check against the international ISO standards which set out how footwear must be tested to ensure that you know the product you are buying will be suitable for the task. The EN ISO standards ensure that the safety features of footwear are tested against a set of European Standards. Whilst this standard was written in Europe it is applied to the safety footwear market worldwide. More information can be found in EN ISO 203452 for safety footwear and EN ISO 203473 for occupational footwear, most recently revised in 2021. There have also been newer standards implemented including EN ISO 132874 for slip resistance and EN ISO 225685,6,7,8 covering toecaps and anti-perforation inserts. The other driver for companies operating in Europe are the PPE Regulations9 which came into force in 2016 with the aim of ensuring common standards for PPE in all Member States.

The place

Once you have taken the task into consideration the next element which can have a marked difference on the requirements of the footwear but also on their longevity is the place they are being used in. If your employees are working in challenging environments, they need footwear which is adequately designed, or its life span will be severely compromised. It is also worth considering the composition of the footwear as newer developments such as composite midsoles and toe caps are far more conducive to colder conditions than steel.

The person

The changing demographics of the world of work and technological advances have made the person a much bigger part of the appropriate selection of safety footwear. Gone are the days of simply saying it needs to be an “S3” and grabbing the first pair off the shelf. Whilst this might seem on the surface to add more complexity to the decision-making process, a correctly fitting pair of safety footwear can have many business benefits, beyond the lift of the footwear itself.

With an increasingly diverse labour market it is essential that safety footwear fits correctly. A style of boot which suits someone of large stature is unlikely to fit someone of a much smaller build and still be comfortable and supportive. When selecting footwear think about who you are buying it for, many brands now offer shoes and boots which are built on either a men’s or women’s last. Significant research has been conducted on this topic by Debbie Janson10 of the University of Bath, she has recently published a paper following a survey of end users of safety footwear the abstract of which can be found on the University of Bath website11.

Debbie has found that “the number of women entering predominantly male industrial environments, and requiring safety footwear is rising, and this is accompanied by anecdotal reports of ill-fitting and uncomfortable footwear”. Her research proactively compares the opinions of women and men regarding their experience of safety footwear.

The other factor to consider is how people walk. Whilst you might not have given this much consideration in the past, this is an important factor in ensuring longevity of the boot by ensuring it wears evenly. It is also an important factor in reducing the likelihood of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). So, choosing the right pair of boots could reduce the likelihood of lost time due to MSDs and the other costs associated with a member of staff being off sick including costs to cover the work, administration costs, potential reputational damage and even civil claims.

When we walk with a neutral gait shoes and boots will wear evenly, but if the foot rolls outwards or inwards when we walk the footwear will wear unevenly with either the outside or inside wearing quicker than the other part – causing the footwear to have to be replaced sooner than it otherwise might have been. You might be thinking that there’s nothing you can do to counter this but there is a simple answer, and it is insoles. Safety footwear providers and manufacturers can supply insoles designed to correct under and over pronation of the foot, making the footwear more comfortable, less likely to cause MSDs and with an overall longer life span. Many manufacturers will also be willing to visit companies and undertake assessments of employees to identify any individuals who would benefit from additional support.

Polbridge Health Ltd12 who provide Occupational Health services to the aviation, construction and haulage industries has seen more and more referrals due to MSDs from badly fitting or uncomfortable footwear.

Joanna Stacey Leeks Clinical Director at Polbridge Health Ltd. noted that “With safety footwear becoming more prevalent in the workplace, we are seeing a greater number of referrals due to associated MSDs… by not selecting the correct footwear many companies will suffer the indirect costs of Occupational Health referrals, treatment, time off and staff illness”.

The composition of the footwear is also of consideration when taking the person into account as composite footwear tends to be wider than steel and therefore more comfortable for those with wider feet. It is also lighter than steel which can be more appropriate for those wearing footwear for long periods of time or for those with slighter builds. If staff have to work 8 to 12 hours in this footwear it needs to be comfortable so as not to distract from the task in hand.

The other aspect to consider when selecting footwear is who is it for, i.e. do you employ them directly? Are they a contractor? Are they a volunteer? Depending on where you are in the world you will have your own set of regulations to comply with, but it is essential to make sure you understand those that are relevant and make sure you stay up to date with any changes. For example, recent changes in the UK mean that both direct employees and those employed on zero hours contracts and agency workers must all be provided with safety footwear if identified in a risk assessment regardless of whether they are identified as limb a or b workers13. In the UK the PPE regulations also require volunteers to be afforded relevant PPE for the tasks which they are undertaking.

“we are seeing a greater number of referrals due to associated MSDs”

How to have the conversation

For many safety professionals, the challenging part of selecting the right safety footwear is not the technical selection but the conversation that is required with budget holders and procurement teams. The challenge is that when you are selecting footwear there will be different business drivers for different parts of the business. So, when you are building your business case it can be beneficial to include the following key aspects.

Quality and comfort over brand names

When you are selecting footwear, it is important to include representatives from the workforce who will be using it on a day-to-day basis. This engagement step will help greatly in getting buy-in, particularly if you are making changes to minimum standards or brands being purchased. One challenge you might face is people’s allegiances to certain brand names, in the belief that they are better because they are a known brand. It can be helpful to discuss directly with manufacturers or with your PPE supplier as they can often provide trials of footwear so that you can experience them in your own working environment and prove to your workforce that you are looking for comfortable products which stop them from work related pain and discomfort whilst protecting them, rather than the misconception of a driver of cost cutting. To use the latest ISO standard as an example for work in a dry environment an S1P SR may be more suitable that an S3/S3L/S3S SR as the waterproof requirement is not needed.

Putting your best foot forward

Guidance on the recent changes has been provided by V12 in a whitepaper which is available from their website.

Getting the correct fit

When working with management teams once footwear has been selected, it is important to ensure that the correct sizes are chosen as some brands will be larger than others. Working with your teams as a safety professional, you can ensure that boots aren’t selected based on the size people assume they are but the size they are in a particular brand. It is important to include this in any communications you make within your business.

Whole life cost

When you are specifying footwear as a safety professional, it can be helpful to focus on the whole life cost of the footwear, this is sometimes referred to as total expenditure or TOTEX. It can be a false economy to purchase cheap safety footwear as its short lifespan can mean replacing it twice or three times during the lifespan of something which is slightly more expensive in initial outlay. As mentioned earlier, the costs required to ensure that you have correctly fitting footwear should also be balanced with the reduction of wear and therefore the extended lifespan of footwear.

It can also be helpful to include the mitigation of indirect costs in your business case as these are not always readily obvious to non-safety professionals. These can include a reduction in lost time due to conditions such as MSDs, increased compliance with the use of the PPE provided and a reduced likelihood of costs associated with occupational health referrals and at the far end of the scale, with potential civil claims for workplace injuries, caused or exacerbated by the footwear provided.

“your PPE supplier can often provide trials of footwear”

Maintaining your footwear

So, you have taken time to select safety footwear which meets the technical requirements of the task and the place of work as well as those who are wearing it. You have engaged with your workforce in the final choice of shoes and boots, and you’ve made your business case the finance and procurement teams or budget holders and have had it approved. So that’s it right? Well, not quite. There are a few more steps that you can take as a safety professional to make sure you get the most out of your safety footwear and protect the business against compliance issues.

Firstly, many manufacturers supply warranties with their products and these should be registered upon purchase to ensure that you are covered should a defect be identified. If footwear is defective, it will not provide the correct protection and must be returned to the manufacturer so that the manufacture can investigate why the footwear does not meet the agreed standard and issue credit notes if valid.

The next element is about ensuring that you have the right policies and procedures in place to support your management teams and occupational health. This can include suitably delegated authority to occupational health to suggest replacements where footwear is causing MSDs this can reduce indirect costs that will have a significant effect on the bottom line if not managed.

Additionally, a new for old policy to ensure that you are not replacing products when they are still serviceable but also so that you can inspect the returned items and identify any potential issues.

Finally, as a safety professional, you will want to ensure that in the event of an incident the safety footwear is inspected to identify if it contributed to the incident and also to ensure that it was correctly worn fastened as designed and maintained. After all, you’ve put all that effort into selecting and procuring it – don’t allow poor maintenance and behaviour to let you down.

In conclusion

In conclusion there are many technical standards that you will want to take into consideration when selecting safety footwear but your role as the safety professional goes beyond this to engaging with the workforce and having the sometimes challenging conversations with managers, budget holders, finance and procurement teams to make sure that the footwear provided, whether it be safety or occupational, will protect the workers, reduce the likelihood of occupational injuries, lots time and civil claims and also provide an acceptable whole life or TOTEX cost to the business. It is a big challenge but one when armed with the right information, can be successfully achieved.

Saftey Footwear Checklist

  • Think about the task that is being undertaken
  • Where is the work happening, are there any particular considerations such as cold or slippery surfaces?
  • Who is the footwear for? Do they have any particular requirements?
  • Have you engaged with the workforce? User trials can help overcome brand bias
  • Remember the whole life cost not just the upfront unit cost of the shoe or boot
  • Don’t forget the indirect costs of poorly maintained, selected or fitting footwear

Article written by Keith Hole and Lucy Pritchard for HSI Magazine – https://www.hsimagazine.com/article/putting-your-best-foot-forward/

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