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Safety Starts with a Single Step

Job-specific footwear improves safety for warehouse, distribution center and transportation employees.

By: Robert McCarthy, Contributor

Truck drivers and warehouse associates need safe, protective footwear designed according to their work environments, and day-to-day activities. Image courtesy of Shoes For Crews.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the United States has approximately 1.9 million warehousing and storage industry workers. Most of these employees fall into three main occupations: stock clerks and order fillers, laborers and movers of freight, stock, and materials, and industrial truck and tractor operators.

Warehousing and storage jobs are dangerous. Safety hazards with life-threatening or deadly consequences present themselves daily, including slips, trips, and falls, moving forklifts and other machinery, as well as possible exposure to harmful substances.

In fact, according to a November 2022 BLS report, six private industry sectors saw increases in illness and injury occurrence from 2020 to 2021. Transportation and warehousing experienced the second-largest jump after retail, rising from 206,900 to 253,100 cases. And according to the National Safety Council (NSC), transportation and material moving are among the most dangerous industries, with worker fatalities up 21% and the number of nonfatal injuries requiring time away from work increasing by 23% from 2020 to 2021.

From safety managers to employees, organizations must consider what makes warehouses and distribution centers so dangerous and how to implement specific measures to decrease accidents and create a safer workplace. One of those measures is selecting the proper safety footwear for employees, and encouraging the use of specially-designed Industrial work boots created to withstand long, rigorous workdays. Below, we’ll look at specific roles, examining the challenges and safety considerations and identifying footwear needs to mitigate those issues.

Warehouse associates

These individuals are the backbone of the business, even though their work happens behind the scenes and out of the eye of the consumer. They handle the day-to-day tasks that keep operations throughout other departments running smoothly and efficiently. Warehouse associates must have a flexible, diverse set of skills to leverage in a variety of situations, including:

  • Operating various types of forklifts, including stand-up, sit-down, and order pickers
  • Receiving, picking, and transporting products throughout the warehouse
  • Tracking inventory and product movement using radio frequency (RF)-powered scanners
  • Stacking, palletizing, toting and storing products, often with heavy lifting of 50 pounds or more
  • Performing maintenance on powered equipment

These employees are exposed to every aspect of a bustling warehouse, both dynamic and static, presenting numerous safety challenges and risks for injury, illness, or death. Polished or coated concrete floors can be slippery and difficult on joints; and gator steps and other sharp flooring surfaces can shred the soles and uppers of shoes and boots, leaving them unwearable.

To protect against the dangers associated with the role, warehouse associates need safe, protective footwear that doesn’t interfere with their day-to-day requirements. Safety managers must ensure workplace shoes offer the following benefits:

  • Superior slip resistance to mitigate slips and falls that contribute heavily to workplace injuries
  • Abrasion-resistant outsoles and uppers for use on rough surfaces, sharp metal edges, or when shoes are used as tools, such as kicking pallets
  • Lightweight materials with proper under-foot cushioning and midfoot support, suitable for 12-hour days and resistant to compression over time
  • Removable insoles for those with orthotics or other inserts that combat chronic foot issues like plantar fasciitis
  • Metal or non-metallic safety toe protection and, in some instances, metatarsal guards to protect against heavy falling objects or heavy equipment impact

Truck drivers

Like warehouse associates, truck drivers have a diverse role that spans multiple industries and use cases: transporting products and materials to and from customers, warehouses, and company suppliers. Truck drivers might have to obtain specific licenses and certifications, like a commercial driver’s license (CDL), and be able to operate different vehicles and types of equipment to get their load from point A to point B. Without truck drivers, businesses do not succeed.

Long-Haul Trucking

While this typically defines any trip over 250 miles, most long-haul truckers complete more grueling trips with long hours spread across multiple states. The job might require multiple stops, loading and unloading freight at more than one warehouse, retail location, or residence.

Because truck drivers often walk on multiple surfaces and transport heavy, bulky loads, they must have slip-resistant shoes with high-quality safety toe protection. Shoes must be comfortable, given the long hours spent in the cab, and drivers often prefer boots with a defined heel to safely climb in and out of the vehicle without issue.

Ice Road Trucking

This role almost always involves operating in cold, hazardous conditions, clearing ice, snow, and other hazards following a storm. Ice road truckers need a product that will keep them warm and insulated for long stretches on the road in temperatures that can reach well below zero degrees Fahrenheit, and protect against dangerous slips and falls on slick outdoor surfaces. Plus, if their truck breaks down, they can be stuck out in the cold for extended periods.

For cold weather purposes, composite or nano-composite footwear with safety toe protection is most valuable because it will not conduct cold. These shoes must meet ASTM F2413-18 impact and compression test standards that govern protective safety toe footwear.

Hazardous Materials (Hazmat) Trucking

Hauling materials like gasoline and toxic chemicals presents various circumstances depending on the load. Standard protective work boots will suffice in certain situations, but the job often requires chemical-resistant footwear in the form of pull-on boots made from polyurethane, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), or rubber, depending on the materials.

This role requires footwear that quickly repels liquid and guards against direct skin contact with toxic materials. Hazmat truckers should be prepared to drive with protective work boots and have a pair of chemical-resistant pull-ons available immediately.

Local and Less than Truckload (LTL) Trucking

For these truck drivers, needs can vary significantly depending on the environment. Think about Amazon, UPS, FedEx, and USPS drivers who are hopping in and out of the truck, fast and often. If their delivery route includes wet or muddy conditions, they need appropriate waterproof protection and outsoles with strong traction.

These shoes must be easy to clean and versatile enough to go from wet to dry to sandy to rough surfaces all day. Their footwear must be lightweight, as a bulky work boot doesn’t lend itself well to quick drop-offs and multiple stops throughout the day. Safety toe protection is also a must since these truckers are unloading their own cargo. Athletic or hiking-inspired footwear with added protection is likely the best option for local and LTL freight hauling.

A collaborative safety effort

In warehousing and transportation, safety managers and workers must work together, carefully accounting for various workplace environments and associated safety risks. In the absence of job-specific footwear requirements for each department or functional area, decision-makers must carefully consider each person’s unique circumstances and prioritized footwear needs: from toe protection needs to outsole compounds and traction lug configurations that ideally address both slip-resistance and abrasion-resistance; to the temperature of the work environment and degree of exposure to water.

For example, some safety footwear upper materials emphasize lightweight breathability, while others may focus on waterproof protection or insulation.

The journey to personal and work environment safety begins with a single step. Making thoughtful, informed safety footwear decisions for the entire workforce is a step in the right direction. WMHS

Bob McCarthy is the associate director of product marketing for Shoes For Crews, LLC.  In his 32 years in the footwear industry, he’s had the opportunity to observe workers in various environments, conduct marketplace research and collaborate with safety and risk managers, in addition to managing products and processes. Visit Shoes For Crews for more information: www.ShoesForCrews.com

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