Footwear technology has changed dramatically over the past several decades. Nonetheless, the foundation of what workers need in a work boot — durability, comfort and protection — remains the same.
In order to choose the right work boots, it's important to consider the work environment and tasks required in your occupation. Companies may have specific guidelines for footwear worn on the job, but many safety and comfort technologies must be considered beyond those formal requirements when selecting work boots.
Work boots traditionally have been divided into two classes: light industrial and heavy industrial. While the difference between footwear designed for each industrial class has somewhat diminished with advances in footwear technology, it remains helpful to think about which environment your job falls into when selecting safety footwear.
From plastics and steel production to oil refineries, heavy industrial work often takes place in the most extreme and potentially dangerous working conditions. Hazards from heat, heavy equipment and corrosive chemicals invariably are part of a heavy industrial setting.
A steel or composite safety toe is essential in these demanding settings to protect toes from sudden impact or compression. Although steel toes have been the norm in the past, lighter toecaps sculpted from reinforced fiberglass may pass the same performance requirements and can be certified to meet ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standard F2415-05 for safety footwear.
The next level of compression and impact protection is a metatarsal guard, which protects the instep area from falling objects and compression. While the metatarsal guard does enhance protection, it also tends to decrease the boot's flexibility.
Exposure to heat and chemicals represents another important consideration in choosing a work boot for a heavy industrial setting. Certain chemicals can break down the materials used in cement construction boots. Look for boots that feature either direct attached construction, where the outsole is molded and chemically fused directly to the upper, or a welted construction boot where the upper and insole are stitched together with a strip of durable material or “welt.” The upper of the boot also should be chemical- and heat-resistant, with no vents and as few seams as possible. This also applies to the outsole, which should be at a minimum both oil- and heat-resistant. In addition, some outsoles specifically are designed to withstand extreme high temperatures.
Light industrial work often takes place inside warehouses or clean industrial settings such as electronics manufacturing. This means light industrial work calls for different safety features. A safety toe may or may not be necessary depending on the nature of the work.
Many people gravitate towards lighter boots that fit more like an athletic or casual shoe. Boots with polyurethane outsoles, for example, are a good option for light industrial workers. These outsoles are slightly less durable than rubber yet are extremely lightweight and comfortable. Both polyurethane and rubber can be designed to be slip resistant, which is another important safety feature for boots worn on smooth warehouse floors. Slip-resistant outsoles have grooves that channel liquid away from the outsole. They also often have specifically engineered sole surfaces for additional traction.
Electrostatic dissipating properties (ESD) are an increasingly common requirement for light industrial footwear. ESD footwear allows small charges of electricity to be dissipated into the walking surface, reducing the accumulation of static electricity that can be a problem in manufacturing environments that deploy complex computers on the production line or in the manufacture of sophisticated electronic hardware such as computer chips. Keep in mind, however, that static dissipating boots do not offer protection from potentially dangerous electrical charges.
For workers who may come in contact with live circuits, wires or highly charged electrical equipment, electrical hazard (EH) rated footwear provides a source of protection from electrical shock. EH-rated footwear features insulating properties that help stop the electrical current from being grounded.
Many jobs fall in-between or outside the two general categories of heavy and light industrial. These jobs define their own niche when it comes to safety footwear needs. Construction or excavation, for example, requires work outdoors on a variety of surfaces and calls for aggressive outsole and toe protection as well as flexibility for bending and kneeling. Protection from chemicals or heat, meanwhile, is less necessary. Waterproof features like reliable waterproof membranes or sealed seams also are important for boots worn in outdoor environments and applications.
Other boots are designed for a very specific purpose, such as logging. Logger boots often feature a higher-than-normal, 90-degree heel for traction and climbing, durability, a waterproof membrane, a steel shank for very firm support and insulation to withstand the demands of the toughest outdoor labor.
Fortunately, there are many innovative technologies available in footwear today. Advanced foot protection technologies can combine the “heavy” durability of a traditional work boot with the “light” comfort of an athletic shoe. You can find the perfect boot for your job by knowing the demands of your work environment and seeking out a boot with the combination of features that will keep workers safe and comfortable.
Roger Huard is the vice president of product development for Wolverine, a company dedicated to the design of innovative work footwear. For more information, visit http://wolverine.com.