Putting Your Workers' Best Foot Forward

The average person walks about 5,000 steps a day, which equates to 73,000 miles by the age of 80. For those in the construction industry or jobs that require being on foot all day, that number could be higher.

Nearly 40 percent of injuries and illnesses, most notably fractures, occur to hands and feet and on average, they result in a median of 32 days away from work to recuperate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, workers incurred sprains, strains, tears at rate of 40 cases per 10,000 full-time workers, and required a median of 10 days away from work.

"[Foot protection] is a bit overlooked consideration-wise. It's key," says Carl Heinlein, senior safety consultant, American Contractors Insurance Group. "On a construction site, you have different elevations and debris on the ground. A good, sturdy boot with ankle protection will help save a worker from a twisted ankle. When you're working all day on your feet and it's not a comfortable boot, it just creates other issues in the body."

Over the years, foot protection has evolved past the tried-and-true leather steel-toe boot to include a myriad of features including waterproof, electrical-resistant and puncture-resistant designs. For a construction or active worker, selecting the right footwear that is comfortable, OSHA-compliant and offers the right protection could be a challenge.

Basic Construction

Every element of the boot plays a key role in protecting workers from injury, says Dave Degenhardt, Lehigh Outfitter director of sales and operation.

"From good ankle support for balance (tall boot, lacing system, padded collar) to proper fit for comfort and stability (no pain or irritation as a distraction) to personal preference (a bulky heavy boot can be hard to wear for some) down to the outsole material and design, everything is integrated," he says.

With any personal protective equipment or safety initiative, an analysis first must be completed to ensure the product fits the conditions and comfortable level of the worker. A safety manager or worker needs to consider the work conditions. Will he/she be working near electrical wiring, wet conditions or falling objects? Also, how long will the worker be on his/her feet?

Crushed, broken feet, amputations of toes or feet are the most common type of foot injuries; caused when feet are trapped between objects, crushed by objects or ran over by vehicles or equipment.

"Sometimes people look at the cost of a boot versus comfort in the long haul," Heinlein says. "When you're been in this industry for a while, people will tell you the boot that they like, the model they like and why they like it."

A worker should not overlook visiting a store to make sure he/she purchases a properly-fitting shoe, he says.

"Many times with personal protective equipment (PPE), it's one-size-fits-all because that's the way the company bought the material or that's the way the vendor dropped it off," he says. "Remember, you're going to be on your feet most of the day. You want something that's comfortable. You don't want something that's going to create blisters or some type of foot problem."

Selecting a Pair

Deborah Hampton, corporate EHS director at Odebrecht Construction, an America's Safest Company, provides the following tips to choosing work boots:

  • Look for puncture-resistant boots that meet the ASTM F2413-11 PR requirements.
  • Look for a boot that has deep treads or patterns and/or that are oil-resistant.
  • Look for a boot that provides a steel or composite toe.
  • Watch where you are placing your feet while working around heavy equipment and machinery.
  • Work in places that have good lighting so you can see what you're doing and where you're stepping.
  • Practice good housekeeping.
  • A balance between price and comfort can be achieved with the addition of accessories such as cost-effective insoles.

"Some of the higher-end brands have anti-fatigue insoles. However, our workers do not purchase higher-end footwear," Hampton says. "For this reason, we provide our workers with anti-fatigue technology insoles which are construction grade. This actually provides quite a bit of additional comfort and support for them."

Proper Maintenance

Once a worker has selected the appropriate footwear, regular cleaning and inspection of the boot is needed throughout the life of the equipment.

"A high-quality pair of work boots should last about two years if taken care of properly," Hampton says.
When inspecting footwear, the following signs must be noted: cracks or stains on the mid sole; frayed or ripped leather or fabric; lack of traction of tread on the outer sole; damaged, ripped or worn insole; or water seepage into the work boot.

"One of the best ways to extend the life of a boot is to replace the insole about every six months with a similar one that came with [the boot]," Degenhardt says. "Replacing with one that is too soft or too thick will change the fit and comfort of the boot completely."

An additional way to extend the life of work boots is to allow them to completely dry out. This can be completed with a boot dryer or by alternating pairs, he says.

A worker who is wearing worn-out work boots can be exposed to additional hazards. For example, worn tread could expose the employee to slips, trips and falls, Heinlein says.

"[PPE] is really your last line of defense. Are you eliminating the hazard? Are you preventing the hazard from happening?" he asks.

Let's Talk about Socks

Among the most overlooked accessories that work hand-in-hand with footwear are socks.

The proper sock can make or break the comfort factor of any shoe or boot, Degenhardt says. Cotton socks in particular can trap moisture inside the boot.

"Keeping that moisture on the foot all day causes foot fungus and can be very uncomfortable," he says.

"A sock made of wool, a wool blend, bamboo or any poly-blends is best to wick away moisture from your foot."

When breaking-in a new boot, wearing two pairs of socks can help keep the foot from rubbing against the boot, he adds.

Fit matters with socks as well. Tight socks can cramp the toes as much as a poorly-fitted shoe or boot, Hampton says. Likewise, socks that are too big or small can cause blisters.

"Boots are overlooked, and then when you take a look at that next level, socks are even more so," Heinlein says. "Socks are one of these things  that once you find a good pair of them and a good pair of boots and put them together, you don't really think about it anymore."