Where safety shoes are falling short: study

Wednesday, 20 September, 2023

Where safety shoes are falling short: study

Traditional safety shoes may increase the risk of trips, twisting and falling when compared with regular shoes, according to a new study.

Under a collaboration between Aalborg University, Odense University Hospital and Spraino ApS, researchers are currently working to provide insight as to how protective footwear can be made safer.

The research focuses on two main areas:

  1. Trip prevention: Reduction of braking force during collisions, allowing the person to regain balance more easily.
  2. Twist prevention: Allowing the shoe to return to a neutral position after a potential twist to prevent ankle injury.

According to the researchers, there is limited knowledge about tripping injuries and ankle twists in workplaces. However, injury reports suggest this is a frequent problem, with significant consequences for both the individual and the employer — particularly if they result in fall injuries. This research project presents an opportunity to prevent tripping and twisting injuries by controlling the shoe’s friction.

How can traditional safety shoes be made safer?

Initial scientific results have already indicated a particular issue with tripping in current safety shoes. It is caused primarily by the shoe’s tip, where the design has been created to minimise braking force during collisions with objects or level differences. This theoretically enables a person to regain balance more easily and thus prevent a fall. However, the braking force on the shoe that causes tripping can be reduced by up to 70% with prototypes featuring fall-modifying shoe elements. Additionally, previous Danish studies show that twist-protection can be built into shoes without the user noticing.

For ankle twists, friction can be reduced on the outer edge of the shoe/sole — allowing the shoe to move outward and return to its normal flat position relative to the ground rather than causing a strain on the ankle’s outer side. A previous study on athletes showed that 53% of severe ankle injuries could be prevented using this technology. This now needs to be integrated into a safety shoe.

“Our initial results show that safety shoes are, in fact, less safe than ordinary shoes when it comes to tripping. However, our project also seeks to improve safety shoes to prevent tripping, twisting and falling injuries, making them safer. Fortunately, our initial results with modified safety shoes suggest that we can make these shoes less prone to tripping,” said Professor Pascal Madeleine from Aalborg University.

For workers who move both indoors and outdoors, and whose tasks vary throughout the week — such as craftsmen and construction workers — it is nearly impossible to control external conditions (clear walkways, flooring type, lighting, level differences, lifting). An effective footwear intervention is thus a great way to reduce the risk of falls and injuries.

How is the study being conducted?

The first part of the project involves mechanical and biomechanical laboratory investigations at Aalborg University. These have been specially designed for the purpose and will establish knowledge for optimising shoe properties through simulated tests that mimic real fall and twist situations.

According to the researchers, lab tests offer specific knowledge about the safety shoes of the future.

“These tests provide us with knowledge about the forces involved when one trips over unforeseen objects and give us specific information on the potential features of future safety shoes compared to traditional ones,” said Mathias Munk-Hansen, a PhD student at Aalborg University.

In the project’s second phase, the researchers will test safety shoes at TDC, where employees will have the opportunity to try out safety shoes with built-in elements to reduce tripping and twisting injuries.

“This project provides us with new knowledge that can benefit our employees and help numerous other workplaces,” said Thomas Hermann, Health and Safety Chief at TDC.

Innovating for the future

The project underscores the importance of constant innovation, even in areas where one might think the best solution has already been found. It could potentially help to reduce workplace sick leave, prevent productivity losses and —  most importantly — spare employees from foot/ankle pain.

While traditional safety shoes protect against some threats, such as heavy falling objects, they can also inadvertently increase the risk for other types of injuries, making research into safer alternatives extremely important.

Image credit: iStock.com/mountainbrothers

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