Improving Foot Protection

New technology and new services are contributing to safer, more comfortable footwear and programs that are easier to administer.

It's not your father's (or mother's, for that matter) safety boot. That's the message from safety footwear manufacturers who have presided over a quiet evolution of safety footwear reflecting new materials and technologies, new styles and an appreciation of demographic changes going on in the workplace.

While manufacturing jobs have declined over the past few years, the service sector continues to grow, observes Joseph Sebes, president of Lehigh Safety Shoe Co., Vestal, N.Y. "Manufacturing today is becoming lighter in nature. As things move overseas and are being outsourced, the environment isn't as harsh as it used to be. The need for the traditional 8-inch, heavy-duty work boot is giving way to a lot more demand for casual footwear."

The growing service sector is also helping to drive the demand for slip-resistant footwear. Some 300,000 slips and falls occur in the workplace each year. "Most of the slips and falls in restaurants, hotels and cruise ships occur when a dining room person, such as a hostess, waiter or bartender, leaves the carpeted floor and goes into the kitchen," said Sebes. "During those first three steps, they don't change their gait and they hit the ground."

Also changing the safety footwear market is an influx of younger employees into the work force who grew up wearing Nikes and Reeboks. "When they come into the work force and are required to wear a steel-toe boot, they are opting more for athletic styles with steel toes or hikers with steel toes instead of the stereotypical 6-inch work boot," said Mark Morgan, director of design for Wolverine Boots and Shoes, Rockford, Mich.

Take a look through Red Wing Shoe's catalog, for example, and the changing nature of safety footwear is obvious. The company offers more than 180 styles of shoes and boots. While traditional black or brown safety shoes and boots are plentiful, styles range from penny loafers to athletic styles that wouldn't look out of place at a weekend 10K race to short boots that would appear at home in any outdoors magazine.

In fact, safety shoe vendors say younger, more fashion-conscious buyers are driving the increasing emphasis on branding in the market. Familiar names such as Cat, Harley-Davidson and Skechers are showing up in the work market, using their brand identity to help win over customers who are strongly influenced by peer pressure and lifestyle marketing.

Comfort is King

New technology and materials are contributing to substantially lighter safety footwear than in the past. Lehigh's Sebes said the weight of shoes has been reduced by 50 percent or more in many cases. Though people often believe work boots are heavy because of the steel toe, he pointed out that the steel toe only weighs 1/8 of an ounce. What has led to lighter boots are changes in insoles and outsoles, he said. Various types of shock-absorbing insole and midsole materials and outsoles made of synthetic materials, along with more use of mesh and other lighter materials in shoe uppers, are all contributing to shoes that are more comfortable and weigh less.

While more traditional safety footwear may have advantages in terms of durability, the newer shoes and boots offer their own rewards. "The old style work boot took quite a long time to break in and become comfortable," noted Morgan. "Today, when you buy a work boot, they're comfortable right out of the box. You don't have that long break-in time."

For workers who may spend 10 hours or more a day in steel-toe boots, getting a proper fit is vital. Shoe experts warn against buying shoes that are not comfortable from the first time they are put on. "A leather shoe may be a little tight the day you buy it, but as the leather breathes and stretches, it forms around your foot," explains Sebes. "With a steel toe, it has to fit the day you buy it because that toe box is not going to go anywhere."

In fitting footwear, Morgan recommended that workers wear the type of sock they normally wear on the job. Because the foot swells over the course of the day, the American Podiatric Medical Association recommends that shoes be tried on in the afternoon. It suggests that workers have their feet measured every time they buy shoes and that they try on both pairs of shoes. Many people have one foot larger than the other, so they should fit the shoe to their larger foot.

While boots are more comfortable these days, Morgan said workers shouldn't expect to buy a pair of boots and wear them the next day. "Wear them around the house on the weekend for a couple hours and then wear them for part of a day," he recommended, then switch to their old boots. If boots or shoes are worn to the point where the steel toe becomes visible, said Morgan, they should immediately purchase new footwear. "That is just inviting an accident to happen, especially if you are working around open electrical circuits," he warned.

Of course, the first order in choosing safety footwear should be to match the features of the shoe or boot to the environment in which they will be used. Some safety shoe manufacturers will conduct walkthrough assessments with customers to determine what hazards are present in the workplace and what the appropriate footwear is to protect workers.

Footwear suppliers are also making it more convenient to manage safety shoe programs and purchase safety shoes, whether it be through retail stores, shoemobiles, direct sales or the Web. For example, Lehigh offers an online program called Boottracker that provides a database of information about a company's shoe purchases. "You can determine who bought shoes, when and where they were purchased, and what style, size and width they were," said Sebes. "You can also track subsidies or payroll deduction programs for budget purposes." He said it not only gives purchasing or corporate safety officials the ability to oversee a multi-plant program, but also lets Lehigh determine if any adjustments should be made in a program, such as tracking rates of return to identify areas where a shoe with more longevity might be introduced.

Sidebar: Relief for the Working Foot

Let's have a little sympathy for working feet. As the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) puts it, "Your feet take tremendous abuse." That's because the average person takes 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day, with each step exerting three times his or her body weight in force. And as Ross Marty, director of clinical education for Acor, a manufacturer of custom footwear products based in Cleveland, points out, "The human foot was designed to walk barefoot over rough, rocky terrain. We have flattened out the world and put concrete under us which we were not really designed to walk on." It's little wonder that more than half of Americans lose one day of work a year because of foot problems.

Orthotics shoe inserts designed to improve foot function and minimize stress can help prevent foot problems. Marty said orthotics can help in two ways. Typically, most of our weight is placed on our heel and forefoot, but an orthotic can distribute the weight so that the entire foot from the heel up to the metatarsals is bearing the forces generated by standing, walking and running. Second, energy absorbing materials in the orthotic act like a shock absorber to ease the stress.

APMA stresses that foot pain is not normal. In fact, it warns that conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, nerve and circulatory disorders can show their initial symptoms in the feet. Problems for workers such as fatigue, cramping in the calves or pain in the knees, hips or back can be due to repetitive stress and aggravated by shoes that fit poorly or do not provide sufficient foot support.

Marty said companies concerned about foot health can offer employees a survey to determine if workers are having problems. If concerns show up, companies can then offer to serve as the distribution point for high-quality footwear or orthotics. Companies may also offer payroll deduction plans so workers can spread out payments for the footwear. Acor, for example, offers the Sole Defense Orthotic that comes in three arch shapes flat, standard or high arch. To determine their arch type, workers stand on a special pad that uses heat-imaging technology to reveal the specific foot shape and key contact areas. Based on this color image, workers can select the correct orthotic.

While orthotics can help prevent fatigue and other problems, Marty warns they are not magic devices that can turn back time. He urges workers to see a doctor if they are experiencing persistent foot problems.

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