Protective Footwear: Know When to Give Safety Shoes the Boot

Safety shoes are a vital piece of PPE, offering the last line of defense against the crushing weight of heavy objects or the hazards of dangerous chemicals. Are your workers' shoes still protecting them?

There's an age-old adage that goes: "If the shoes fits, wear it."

However, the lesser-known proverb that says, "If a work shoe's steel toe, steel shank or metatarsal guard is showing, it must be retired immediately" ... well, that one hasn't gained quite as much traction in mainstream America.

Experts say there's good reason that inspecting and cleaning safety shoes isn't always a high priority for many workers. The big reason, according to Arlen Stensrud, vice president, marketing, for Rock Island, Ill.-based Norcross Safety Products/North Safety Products, is human nature.

"You want to get where you're going after work whether it's home or your favorite pub," Stensrud says. "You have other things on your mind other than cleaning off your boots."

We're not pointing fingers or toes. The purpose of this article simply is to raise awareness of two important safety issues: knowing when workers should replace their safety footwear and knowing the best ways to care for safety footwear in order to extend its life as long as possible (see sidebar).

If in Doubt, Throw it Out

Choosing the appropriate shoe for the specific demands of the job is essential to ensuring that a safety shoe provides the proper protection. But selecting the correct shoe for the job is only half the battle, experts say. The other half is monitoring safety footwear for signs that the shoe may need to be "retired," as Stensrud puts it.

Mark Morgan, director of design for Wolverine Footwear Group, a division of Rockford, Mich.-based Wolverine Worldwide, cautions that there's no one-size-fits-all formula for knowing exactly when it's time to replace safety shoes, as there are many variables to consider such as the job hazards, how often the boot is worn and the size and weight of the worker.

Even within the same industry, the length of a safety shoe's service depends on the job task. Jerry Hould, sales and marketing manager for shoe manufacturer L.P. Royer Inc. of Lac-Drolet, Quebec, Canada, points to one of his company's core markets: the aluminum industry.

"It depends on the department. The guys in the casting area could change their boots every 6 months, while the guys in the warehouse could change them every 15 months," Hould says.

A good rule of thumb, though, according to Fawn Evenson, vice president of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, is "if there's any question that the shoe can no longer do what it was intended to do, then you should dispose of it."

When inspecting safety footwear to see if it needs to be replaced, shoes with steel toecaps will offer more tactile clues than shoes with composite material toecaps, Evenson explains. For example, if a heavy object falls on a steel toe shoe, the steel cap will be dented and will not "spring back," indicating that the shoe must be replaced. Composite material shoes, on the other hand, could be "irrevocably damaged" in the same incident and still maintain their form.

That's one reason why Morgan recommends replacing impact-resistant safety footwear anytime something heavy is dropped on it. Even if there's only "mild impact," if there's any doubt that the shoe will be able to offer protection next time something falls on it, replace it, Morgan says.

"That's the safest way to proceed," Morgan says.

That's standard operating procedure at Kohler, Wisc.-based Kohler Co., which is best known for its plumbing products. The company reimburses its workers for 50 percent of the purchase of up to four pairs of work shoes a year, but it foots the entire bill for a new pair of shoes in the rare instance that a heavy object a sink or tub, perhaps drops on a worker's shoe, according to John Krueger, supervisor of safety and industrial hygiene.

"If something falls on your toe, we take the shoe out of service," Krueger says.

In cases of mild impact, Krueger adds that the worker, a supervisor and a division safety specialist inspect the shoe. "Between the three of them, they would look at it and make a reasonable judgment call."

Wear and Tear

At Kohler, injuries from objects falling on workers' shoes are few and far between, according to Krueger. Consequently, "most of the shoes are just wearing out from wear and tear."

The criteria for replacing shoes due to excessive wear and tear is subjective, but there are some red flags, such as when a shoe's steel toe or other protective components such as the steel midsole, the steel shank or the metatarsal guard is showing. (In all four scenarios, the shoe needs to be replaced immediately.)

The National Safety Council, in its "Selection and User Guide for Protective Footwear," recommends immediately replacing impact- and compression-resistant shoes if there's "evidence of physical damage" to the toe area or the shoe. For shoes with metatarsal guards, shoes should be replaced after an impact has occurred or when the metatarsal guard is exposed from wear and tear, according to the guide.

For waterproof or chemical-resistant footwear made with rubber or PVC materials, Stensrud recommends that boots be replaced immediately if there is any separation of the rubber or PVC parts, including the outsole, foxing (the piece of material that protects the joint between the outsole and the upper) or toe cover.

Randy Lubart, senior vice president, sales, for West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Shoes for Crews LLC, asserts that it all comes down to good old-fashioned "common sense."

"If shoes are tattered and worn, the toes are poking through the sides, the steel toe is visible through the leather, then common sense tells you it's time to get a new pair of shoes," Lubart says.

The same could be said for evaluating the tread on a slip-resistant safety shoe. Once tread, or outsole, shows signs of damage or wear, the shoe likely is reaching retirement age.

If an area of the shoe's tread is worn smooth or the tread design is not visible, then the need to replace the shoe becomes urgent, as the shoe isn't providing the slip protection it was purchased for.

"When those areas of the shoe or boot are gone, you've really lost a lot of the value of the grip of the product," Stensrud says. "It's much the same as with tires. Tires don't necessarily wear down evenly, but when you get down to an area of the tire where it's really smooth, it's time to replace it."

Even though about 80 percent of the "slip-resistant magic" in slip-resistant shoes is attributed to the compound found in the tread with the grid pattern itself only accounting for about 20 percent of the slip-resistant properties according to Shoes For Crews' Lubart, the tread's design still presents an important visual clue for replacement.

"In our case, it's a very distinctive grid. If the grid is in place, the shoe will function. If the grid is completely eradicated, then it's been compromised in some fashion," Lubart says.

Check for Leaks

Something important to look for when evaluating the fitness of a rubber safety shoe or boot is the presence of cuts, cracks or punctures on the footwear, which could cause leaking.

There are two ways to test a rubber shoe or boot for leaks, and neither is terribly scientific. They are detailed here.

  • Method 1: Remove the shoe's insole and fill the shoe with water. Place the shoe on a newspaper and look for leaks. The disadvantage to this method is that once the test is complete, the boot needs time to dry before it can be worn again.
  • Method 2: Line the inside of the shoe with a paper towel or cloth. Place a heavy object on top of the towel or cloth to hold it in place. Fill a bucket with water so that the water level only is a few inches from the top of the shoe. (Do not let the water overflow into the opening at the top of the shoe.) Leave the shoe in the bucket overnight. The next day, take out the paper towel or cloth. If it is damp, there is a leak.

A leak can undermine the ability of safety footwear to keep water or harmful chemicals from reaching the foot, and replacement, according to Stensrud, "is the safest course." That's also the view of the National Safety Council, which recommends discarding leather or rubber safety shoes when cracks or punctures appear.

However, in cases in which exposure to hazardous chemicals is not an issue, patching the shoe with a rubber or PVC patch kit could be an option, Stensrud says. Such kits are readily available at shoe retailers or the shoe section of stores such as Wal-Mart or Target.

Sidebar: Getting More Mileage From Safety Footwear

Experts say dedicating a few minutes each day to the care and maintenance of safety footwear can go a long way toward extending the life of workers' shoes.

While workers always should consult the manufacturer's instructions first, experts offer the following tips for getting the optimal performance and life out of their safety shoes.

Rotate shoes. If it's feasible, purchase two pairs and rotate between the two pairs, says Mark Morgan of Wolverine Footwear Group.

Morgan explains that, on average, a worker can perspire as much as 200 milliliters of moisture into a boot or shoe when involved in heavy activity. Such moisture not only can eat away at the boot but also can cause discomfort and blisters for the workers, Morgan explains.

"By giving each pair of boots a day to rest, you allow the moisture to evaporate and dry out," Morgan says.

Keep footwear clean. After each use, safety footwear should be sprayed off with a hose; dipped in water; or cleaned with soap, water and a cloth or brush, depending on the type of shoes and how dirty they are. (For full-grain leather, clean with a damp cloth or sponge and a mild detergent.) According to Arlen Stensrud of Norcross Safety Products/North Safety Products, cleaning footwear not only protects the shoe from deterioration but also makes it easier to detect signs of physical damage.

Cleaning also helps performance, especially in the case of slip-resistant shoes. Fawn Evenson of the American Apparel and Footwear Association advises using a brush or hose to clean mud and dirt from the bottom of slip-resistant shoes so they maintain their traction.

Keep leather supple. If you wear safety footwear made with leather, experts advise using shoe grease, oil or other moisturizing cream available at shoe stores and other retailers to prevent drying out and cracking. As always, consult the manufacturer's instructions first. If there are no instructions, visit the manufacturer's Web site or a shoe retailer.

Purchase a new sock liner. If footwear doesn't show physical signs of deterioration, a new sock liner available in retailers' footcare aisle "can breathe new life into an old pair of boots," Morgan says. "That really can make a big difference in how a boot feels after it's been worn for a while."

Choose the right shoe. Often when safety shoes fail to meet expectations it's because the shoes weren't appropriate for the job task, Morgan says. Safety professionals can ensure that workers are outfitted with the right shoes or boots by conducting a hazard assessment for each job task to determine what kind of foot protection is needed for each job.

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