The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across nearly all industries and around the world was swift and severe. As stay-at-home orders were enacted and businesses were forced to adapt, tighten or even temporarily close operations, the country - and the world - saw a seismic shift in the way commerce and essential work is carried out.
And yet, as unemployment levels climbed, in some industries, others struggled to keep up. . Some businesses experienced growth, requiring them to evolve and meet the moment. Growth led to an increase in their labor force and the dawn of a more direct-to-consumer way of life. In fact, the warehousing and distribution industries are some of the few areas of business where employment is higher than before the pandemic began. In September 2020, 1.25 million people were reported to be employed in manufacturing positions, 46,000 more than in February 2020.1
Since the start of the pandemic, e-commerce sales have jumped almost 32%, setting a record breaking high.2 The increases in e-commerce transactions have a positive chain-reaction, spurring a demand for more manufacturing, warehousing and distribution jobs for men and women who have been deemed essential workers.
For a workforce where many were new to these jobs, and those who continued to work long and grueling hours throughout the pandemic, safety became top of mind. Long days on the job, rushing to keep up with the growing demand in e-commerce sales, can often take a toll on workers. Complicated by sick leave, quarantine policies and curbing the spread of COVID-19, many workers faced new demands on their time, the opportunities to take extra shifts and even longer days to meet the pressures of the shopping and shipping rushes. For workers' physical health, and morale of the company, it is imperative to keep workers safe, happy and comfortable on the job. Proper PPE, starting from the ground up with safety footwear, makes all the difference when it comes to the safety and comfort of workers.
Safety managers and upper management in warehousing and indoor manufacturing environments are all too familiar with the sight of workers outfitted in regular sneakers and trainers for a shift. Unless the environment calls for specific toe protection, many of today’s younger workers and those new to the industry have a habit of falling back on old comforts like tennis shoes. With the need for cushioning on hard, cement floors and lightweight, breathable comfort for long, active days standing, walking, pulling, and pushing, many may not realize that there are safer and more performance-driven options on the market. As safety managers and key decision makers, it’s often up to you to educate and empower employees to choose better options for PPE to ensure a safer and more productive work day.
Indoor manufacturing, warehousing and distribution environments tend to be fast-paced, with often long hours of standing and movement. Flat, hard surfaces may lead to foot fatigue, as well as knee and back pain. Crush injuries from falling boxes or materials along with slips, trips and falls are all common risks workers may encounter on the job. Proper safety footwear that provides speed, agility and comfort are key.
There are a number of safety footwear manufacturers in the market today who have identified the unique footwear and safety needs of the indoor and manufacturing worker, and, thanks to recent innovations in materials and construction, have developed footwear as fast and nimble as these growing industries. Safety shoes and work sneakers offer lightweight protection and mimic the comfort and performance style of a sneaker or cross trainer without sacrificing the safety found in a work boot.
Choosing proper safety footwear
Selecting the right safety footwear starts with a clear understanding of job site hazards and the requirements established by the company, the safety manager and regulatory bodies like OSHA. The safety shoes of today are a far cry from the big, bulky boots many may associate with the idea of protection. They are, in fact, not your father’s work boots.
Safety toes: For environments where toe protection is required, workers have a number of lightweight options that go beyond a steel toe cap. Today’s manufacturers offer aluminum, composite and even carbon-fiber safety toe caps that still satisfy any ASTM safety standards with less weight for the wearer. Carbon-fiber toe caps, for example, offer non-metallic protection and are 15% lighter than their steel counterparts, reducing weight and providing ease of wear for workers who may have to walk through metal detectors throughout their day. Fit is a critical component to any boot or shoe, but even more important when a toe cap is present. For those workers who can feel the toe cap and the discomfort that goes along with the pinching or rubbing during the day, I would suggest seeking out a brand that offers a roomier fit or footwear noted to be built for the correct anatomical shape of the foot. At my company, for example, we manufacture custom asymmetrical safety toe caps that protect from the big toe to the littlest and offer a roomier toe box allowing the foot to move and bend naturally within the footwear.
New materials: Advancements in materials and specialized textiles have introduced a new class of work footwear that blends the athletic fit and feel of sneakers with the durable protection of a safety boot. These materials, often mesh and textiles, offer durability through with high tensile strength and the added benefit of being non-marring an important feature in manufacturing environments like automotive where workers must be careful to not scratch or scuff materials they are producing. New knit safety shoes are enhanced with other performance technologies including waterproof linings and TPU webbing to provide additional structure and stability for the foot. Reflective webbing and hi-vis stitching help to increase visibility in low light conditions. New comfort enhancements including midsoles constructed of proprietary compounds built for enhanced cushioning performance help to increase responsiveness, return energy with every step, and provide a lightweight feel for long days on the job. Combined, these advancements help safety shoes enter a new era of comfort and fit.
Safety begins with a good foundation: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, slips, trips and falls continue to be one of the leading causes of injury in manufacturing facilities.3 In environments where sure-footedness is critical, safety shoes and boots require enhanced outsoles. Workers should look for boots and shoes that provide abrasion-, oil- and slip-resistant rubber outsoles. In facilities where water, grease and other liquids are commonplace, finding an outsole with a tread design that maximizes surface area and offers channels to disburse liquids will contribute to better surface area traction. For workers that may encounter live electrical circuits, outsoles that are electrical hazard (EH) rated will provide a secondary source of protection should the wearer accidentally come in contact.
Fit Matters. At my company, fit is a critical component to not just the overall feel and performance, but also for safety. Feet are as unique as the people that walk on them. Finding a brand that offers the best silhouette and fit for your feet, and sizing the safety boots or shoes appropriately is incredibly important. Furthermore, women in the market for safety shoes should seek out brands that design and fit their products for the specific biomechanics of a woman’s foot. Other trade tips to consider to find the optimal fit include: shopping/trying on shoes towards the end of the day when feet tend to be more swollen and at their largest. This allows for a better fit from start to finish of the work day. Also, come prepared with the socks you would wear for your shift. Socks should provide cushioning and ideally be made of a moisture-wicking material like Merino wool to help keep feet dry and stink-free throughout the day.
Looking to the future
While COVID-19 continues to make its mark on the people and the economy in the US and around the world, one thing remains certain, the boom of e-commerce and its impact on industries like warehousing, distribution and manufacturing will continue for years to come. The influx of industry and the rising demand for labor to meet the rapid pace of these industries will offer new employment opportunities and introduce a new labor force across categories. This new breed of essential workers will demand PPE to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of these industries, and thankfully, many manufacturers have heard this demand and will keep innovation at the forefront.