OSHA cites a handful of companies for violations of its foot protection standard each year, but about 200,000 workers suffer foot or toe injuries annually, according to the National Safety Council. Safety experts say these are all preventable injuries.
Part of the problem is employers and employees do not know how to select the proper foot protection. Add to that the lack of an "all-purpose" shoe that protects against every imaginable hazard and the complexity of the problem is revealed.
Is there a magic formula for the feet? No, but there are some steps that can be followed to ensure feet are protected.
OSHA's personal protective equipment (PPE) standard dealing with footwear (29 CFR 1910.136) requires protection "where there is danger of foot injuries due to falling or rolling objects, or objects piercing the sole and where...exposed to electrical hazards." It also recommends impact protection when heavy materials are being handled; compression protection for work involving manual material handling carts, bulk rolls and heavy pipe; and puncture protection from sharp objects, such as nails, tacks, screws and scrap metal.
Michael Ziskin, a consultant who specializes in personal protective equipment in industry and on hazardous waste sites, said employers need to go beyond OSHA's sketchy guidelines.
"Footwear selection can be a struggle once your eyes are opened," said Ziskin, who is chairman of the American Industrial Hygiene Association's Protective Clothing and Equipment Committee. "The more you know about the limitations of the products, the less you know about how they will perform in specific work situations."
Ziskin said manufacturers can provide information on what hazards their footwear is designed for, but employers must determine how the products will be used and how effective they will be for the tasks. Assessing foot hazards should be part of a broader job hazard analysis, said Ziskin, founder and president of Field Safety Corp., Guilford, Conn.
According to Ziskin, feet-related risks can include everything from chemical hazards and heavy objects to slippery or uneven surfaces that can cause trips and falls.
Here are some key factors to consider when choosing a shoe:
- Steel toes to protect against falling objects, which cause 60 percent of all foot injuries. Where there are electrical hazards, a fiberglass toe should replace the typical steel toe.
- Good traction to protect against slips and falls, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics said were responsible for about 329,000 lost workdays in 1994. Depending on the environment, consider cleats, or a shoe with an abrasive, gritted grooved, spiked or studded sole.
- Proper chemical protection. Boots and shoes made of rubber, PVC or neoprene (depending on the chemical) are needed.
- Employee comfort. If a shoe is unwieldy or heavy, chances are it will not be worn. Give workers a choice of footwear colors and styles but only after you are satisfied that all of those to be considereed provide adequate protection.
Ziskin said the "Achilles' heel" of many foot protection programs is selecting footwear that protects against only one or two hazards when multiple hazards are present. You can avoid it by assessing all of the hazards, and then using engineering controls, work practices and the proper safety footwear.
He also warned against thinking that good shoes or boots are all that matter in controlling foot hazards. To prevent slips and falls, for example, workers must be trained to mark a spill until it can be cleaned up.