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Best Foot Forward: Safety Footwear

Barbara Nessinger, Chief Editor

Outfitting employees with appropriate footwear reduces injuries. Protecting employees’ feet with good industrial footwear cuts lost work hours, improves productivity and is good for workplace morale.

History of Safety Footwear

The history of safety boots/footwear began in the early part of the 20th century; this was a time when government started addressing industrial safety issues. During this time, also, the laws on workers’ compensation were enacted. Before this period, sadly, it was often cheaper and faster for a company to just replace an injured worker, rather than introduce safety measures. Liability costs eventually made many large companies focus on requiring or providing equipment that was safer to use than before and to enact safety standards in the workplace.

The first steel-toe boots were developed in the 1930s by Red Wing Shoes Company. Later, German marching boots used in the World War II era were also reinforced using metal toecaps.

The introduction of the Occupational Safety and Health Act  in 1970 was aimed at ensuring workers operated in a safe environment; OSHA was created to ensure that workplace safety standards were enforced. These standards included those that required the use of footwear that is protective in places that posed the threat of foot injuries. Safety footwear, nowadays, is a mandatory requirement in many industries.

Unlike some other protective equipment, safety boots have continued to develop to reflect the current fashions. Customers’ expectations change and evolve; therefore, manufacturers are forced to produce boots in a variety of styles.

OSHA Standards

To abide by federal regulations adopted and enforced by the OSHA, protective footwear is required for workers in industrial settings. OSHA has an abundance of rules and regulations regarding workplace safety, including section 29 CFR 1910.136 on occupational foot protection.

Footwear is included in the Personal Protective Equipment section of the Occupational Safety and Health Standards. The section on foot protection points to issues relevant to employers in the construction, industrial, government and service fields.

The federal government’s standard, 29 CFR 1910.136(a), states: “The employer shall ensure that each affected employee uses protective footwear when working in areas where there is a danger of foot injuries due to falling or rolling objects, or objects piercing the sole, or when the use of protective footwear will protect the affected employee from an electrical hazard, such as a static-discharge or electric-shock hazard, that remains after the employer takes other necessary protective measures.”

29 CFR 1910.136 also incorporates, by reference, the ASTM F2412-05 Standard Test Methods for Foot Protection, F2413-05 Standard Specification for Performance Requirements for Protective Footwear and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) American National Standard for Personal Protection—Protective Footwear (ANSI Z41-1999 and Z41-1991).

OSHA suggests protective footwear be worn in situations involving the following:

  • corrosive or poisonous materials
  • electrical hazards
  • static electricity that could cause an explosion
  • heavy objects that could roll onto feet
  • sharp objects that could puncture the foot
  • molten metal that could splash onto feet
  • hot or slippery surfaces


On March 1, 2005, the ANSI Z41 reference was withdrawn and replaced by the ASTM Standards; on September 9, 2009, OSHA issued an update to its PPE standards. The final rule went into effect in October 2009. This final rule revised the PPE sections of OSHA’s general industry, shipyard employment, longshoring and marine terminals standards regarding requirements for eye and face protective devices, and head and foot protection. The revision updated the references in these regulations to recognize the three most recent editions of the applicable national consensus standards and allows employers to use PPE constructed in accordance with any of the three. [Note: ASTM F2412-11 (Standard Test Methods for Foot Protection) and ASTM F 2413-11 (Standard Specification for Performance Requirements for Protective [Safety] Toe Cap Footwear) are the most current footwear consensus standards.]

Types of Footwear

Today’s work boots offer safety features that weren’t considered decades ago; they are better able to protect against the most common injuries—from falling or rolling objects to electrical hazards. Safety boots are basically shoes made with a protective reinforcement at the front, making them quite durable as well as providing protection. The reinforcement helps to protect the toes from falling objects or any kind of compression. They are normally installed with a sole plate in the main sole to prevent against punctures that might occur from below (i.e., stepping on a sharp object). The reinforcement is normally made of steel; hence they are sometimes known as steel-toe or steel-cap boots. Protective footwear for the workplace is usually designed to protect the foot from other physical hazards,  as well, such as extreme heat or cold, wet and slippery surfaces, or exposure to corrosive chemicals.

Composite Safety Toe

Despite steel being the main material used for reinforcement, other composite materials or even plastics may be used for the same purpose. Although most boots with a composite safety toe provide security, many brands meet or exceed ASTM F2413- 11 standards for impact, compression and electrical hazards. Coming in at a fraction of the weight, certain work boot options can also provide protection without weighing the wearer down.

Electrical Hazard Compliance

Boots that meet the CSA 2011 standards provide protection from open electrical currents up to 18,000 volts. Conductive (Cd) footwear is intended to provide protection for the wearer against hazards that may result from static electricity buildup and to help reduce the possibility of ignition of explosives or volatile chemicals. The footwear must facilitate electrical conductivity and the transfer of static electricity buildup from the body to the ground. Moreover, the electrical resistance must range between zero and 500,000 ohms.

Electrical hazard (EH) footwear is manufactured with non-conductive, electrical shock-resistant soles and heels. The outsole is intended to provide a secondary source of electric shock-resistance protection to the wearer against the hazards from an incidental contact with live electrical circuits, electrically energized conductors, parts or apparatus. It must be capable of withstanding the application of 18,000 volts at 60 hertz for one minute with no current flow or leakage current in excess of one milliampere under dry conditions.

Some footwear offerings serve multiple purposes. For example, the Pilot General Purpose PVC Knee Boot with Steel Toe and Steel Puncture Resistant Midsole, from Tingley Rubber, works for anyone working where there is potential for outsole punctures. The steel toe meets ASTM F2413 M I/75 C/75 for toe impact and compression, and the boot is EH-rated.

Outsole Offerings

Many new safety features focus on the construction of the inner work boot; however, the outsole is also important. A good outsole can provide excellent resistance to heat, chemicals, oil, gas, chips, marking or slipping. When faced with extreme temperatures or unsafe, slippery surfaces, a sturdy outsole that offers gripping features can literally be a lifesaver.

Other Advancements

Some other features that can provide comfort and protection in safety footwear include: flexible, cushioned insoles; dual-density memory foam that allows for stabilization and provides freedom of movement; and waterproof construction to ensure feet stay dry in all conditions.

There are also many footwear accessories and “add-ons” designed specifically to help augment foot safety in the workplace. Such additions often are designed with specific features for specified tasks. An important point to remember, however, is that the ASTM standard does not allow for the use of add-on type devices (strap-on foot, toe or metatarsal guards) as a substitute for protective footwear. According to the ASTM standard, any protective toe cap or metatarsal guard must be designed, constructed and manufactured into the protective footwear during the manufacturing process and tested as an integral part of the footwear.

While ASTM excludes add-on devices, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not acceptable to OSHA. This is because OSHA states in 1910.136(b)(2) “Protective footwear that the employer demonstrates is at least as effective as protective footwear that is constructed in accordance with one of the above consensus standards will be deemed to be in compliance with the requirements of this section.”

So, if an employer can provide documentation, such as testing data proving their add-on devices provide protection equivalent to any of the incorporated by reference performance standards, then the add-on devices are acceptable to OSHA. Most manufacturers of add-on devices have submitted their products to independent laboratories for testing.

For example, Trex™ Ice Traction devices, from Ergodyne, give workers “a foot up on the elements.” In icy or snowy conditions, Trex provides a stretchable rubber frame that fits snugly over boots or shoes to convert ordinary footwear into winter footwear. This enables a worker to wear his own safety boots while battling icy conditions, whether in construction or on a loading dock, etc.

Today’s work boots and footwear offer safety features that weren’t considered decades ago. They are designed to better protect against the most common injuries and protect employers from costly employee injuries and lost time. The cost of a pair of safety shoes is small compared to a foot injury that can put an employee out of work for days or weeks—or worse—cause permanent disability. WMHS

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