These boots were made for safety

By Wendy Cramer
Wednesday, 15 November, 2006

There are so many varieties of safety shoes and boots now available, it's becoming a challenge to match the right shoe to the job. We take a look at the different safety ratings and what features are the most important when it comes to shoe choice.

It's easy to see why footwear is one of the most prolific categories of PPE. Within an industrial setting, feet are susceptible to a multitude of injuries. And when something does go wrong, the results can range from minor to devastating.

It's especially important to guard the toes, according to Peter Nichols from Steel Blue. He told Safety Solutions that the main function of a person's toes is to maintain balance and mobility. "It is extremely difficult for someone who has lost their toes to stand up, walk or run."

Nichols has provided a gruesome list of all the different injuries and accidents feet can sustain:

  • Crushed toes
  • Sharp objects such as nails and glass spiking or cutting through the sole of the footwear
  • Slipping on wet or oily surfaces or undulating ground
  • Burns from molten metal or sparks burning through footwear
  • Acid skin burns if a chemical enters footwear
  • Blisters from poorly fitted or designed footwear
  • Jarred ankles from a lack of ankle support
  • Jarring to knees, hips and lower back if shock-absorbing properties are inadequate
  • General fatigue due to heavy or uncomfortable footwear

There are some working environments that have specific footwear requirements - such as a smelter - but Mahendra Dahia from Enoch Taylor & Co believes that all working environments require some kind of foot protection, whether it's with or without a steel toecap.

And while it's up to employees to wear the footwear protection that's provided, employers must provide suitable protection to start with. "OHS legislation requires employers and employees to form OHS committees in the workplace," Dahia says.

"These committees are required to identify the appropriate safety equipment, including footwear, that each employee requires to perform his or her job."

Setting the standard

The standard that governs protective footwear is AS/NZS 2210: 2000. Within this standard, there are different classes of footwear: AS/NZS 2210.2 is a specification for occupational protective footwear; AS/NZS 2210.3 is a specification for safety footwear with an impact rating of up to 200 joules; AS/NZS 2210.4 is a specification for safety footwear with an impact rating of up to 100 joules; and AS/NZS 2210.5 is a specification for occupational footwear without toecaps.

According to Nichols, safety footwear rated to withstand 200 joules is generally used in heavy industry such as mining, agriculture, waterfront, building and construction.

"Footwear able to withstand a force of impact of 100 joules is designed for light industrial environments such as transport, storage, communication and light engineering," he says.

"Shoes that are licensed and accredited to the Occupational Footwear requirement AS/NZS 2210.5 are designed for environments that do not require safety toecaps, such as light-duty factory work, process work and field work (not handling heavy machinery)."

When it comes to toecaps, the debate is still on over whether the newer nonmetallic caps or traditional steel caps provide the best level of impact protection.

But Nichols does point to some other advantages of the nonmetal variety; they are easier to use around security metal detectors and do not transmit heat or cold as much as steel. "They are therefore more comfortable and safer in freezing conditions as they insulate the toes," he says.

"They also do not rust, they do not conduct electricity and are lighter than steel caps."

The main test that safety footwear undergoes when it is being rated is the impact test. Nichols says this impact on footwear is measured by a weight being dropped onto a chisel striker placed over the top of a toecap. The energy measurement of this striker hitting the toecap is called a joule.

"The highest rating for safety footwear impact is 200 joules. A plasticine capsule is placed under the inside of the toecap, and after the impact test has taken place the plasticine capsule is measured. Depending on what size toecap was used, the plasticine must show a clearance of between 12-15 mm."

"Other safety requirements are the thickness of the leather used, leather tear strength, abrasion resistance of linings and thread strength. As far as quality is concerned, sole adhesion, flex and abrasion are also measured."

Spoilt for choice

When it comes down to selecting the right kind of protective footwear for the job at hand, Dahia says there are a number of factors to take into account.

When speaking purely from a safety perspective, the impact rating needs to be matched to the job the wearer will be performing. Fit and comfort of the shoe to the individual is also imperative, as it is not just accidents that cause foot injuries. Long-term wear of a badly fitting shoe can cause injuries too.

Finally, Dahia suggests that wear life, styling, colour and price are all factors to take into consideration.

And there's no longer any reason for people to refuse to wear their safety shoes if the time is taken at the outset to choose the right pair.

Nichols says that while the first generation of safety shoes that were developed with steel caps did a good job of protecting toes from being crushed, they generally only came in one or two styles.

Over time, some safety footwear brands have evolved to offer a range of features such as more functional styles, higher levels of comfort, sport shoe shock absorption, lightweight design, flexible soles, quality leathers, non-chafing linings, and metatarsal guards over the instep of the foot."

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