When I was a boy, my father gave me a piece of advice that to this day I haven't forgotten. "Son," the old sage would say, "you only get one set of feet, so you better take care of them."

I think about that bit of wisdom whenever I gingerly walk on the beach, venture outside barefoot on a Sunday morning to retrieve the newspaper, or meander around a swimming pool. Each step I make is done carefully and with caution, realizing that one false move could inflict great pain.

But nowhere is dad's advice more important to remember than in the workplace, where hazards lurk at many different turns. Surveys have suggested that two out of every three workers suffer from some form of a foot problem. And although having the proper shoes or boots for the job is crucial, oftentimes foot problems stem not from the footwear but from the workplace environment.

"A properly fitted safety shoe will usually protect," says Don Garvey, CIH, CSP, senior construction industrial hygienist, St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Co. "It's usually the person doing an unsafe act or a workplace hazard that causes the problem."

There are many ways that employers and employees can improve their workplaces in order to stamp out foot injuries before they start. Here are five suggestions:

1) Smart engineering

Do a risk analysis of the work environment to determine when and how employees are exposed to foot injury hazards and how to protect them. OSHA requires that employers document this assessment.

OSHA's foot protection standard, 29 CFR 1910.136, offers some clues as to how to engineer out potential problems. It states that the employer must ensure that each affected employee uses protective footwear when working in areas where there is a danger of foot injuries due to:

  • falling or rolling objects;
  • objects that can pierce the sole;
  • exposure to electrical hazards.

Smart engineering also includes good housekeeping. In fact, housekeeping is probably the most critical element to protecting feet, says Bob Adams, director of Environmental Health & Safety Services, City of New York Design and Construction, the organization that managed the cleanup process at the World Trade Center site.

"You can put workers in suits of armor, but it won't matter if you have improper storage of materials and leave trip hazards lying around," says Adams, a CIH and CSP and past chair of the AIHA construction committee. "Bad housekeeping will lead to increased foot injuries."

Besides keeping a work site or shop tidy, floors should be kept clean and dry and have adequate drainage. Gratings, mats and raised platforms can be used in wet conditions. Floors and walking surfaces should be free from protruding nails, splinters, holes and loose boards.

2) Switching tasks

A job itself can be designed to help workers avoid foot injuries or problems, especially those who spend most of their working time standing. Good job design can enable workers to avoid standing in fixed positions for too long. Elements of good job design, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), include:

  • vary tasks that require changes in body position and that utilize different muscles;
  • job rotation in which workers move from one job to another;
  • job enlargement that includes more and different tasks in a worker's duties, increasing the variety of body positions and motions;
  • teamwork, which gives the entire team more control and autonomy in allocating the work and allows workers to alternate between tasks;
  • rest breaks, frequent short breaks are preferable to fewer long breaks.

"Breaks are important," suggests Adams. "People need times of rest and recovery. It's also important that workers alternate postures in order to avoid aching feet."

3) Workplace design

Thirty-five percent of all workdays lost are caused by injuries resulting from slips and falls, and one out of every six workers' compensation claims is related to a fall1. Besides effective job design, proper workplace design is needed to help maintain foot protection.

For standing jobs, the CCOHS says an adjustable work surface that accommodates both short and tall workers is the best choice. Workstation design should also provide the worker ample room to change body position. A footrail or footrest can be installed to enable the worker to shift weight from one leg to the other. Where possible, the design should allow a worker to be able to do the job sitting or standing at will. Even when work can only be done while standing, a seat should be provided for resting purposes.

The type of flooring in the workplace has an important influence on foot comfort. Hard, unyielding floors such as concrete are the least comfortable surfaces. Floor matting can be useful for not only cushioning and anti-fatigue purposes, but also for reducing the chances of a slip or fall caused by moisture or debris, assuming the matting is installed properly.

4) Personal care

Employees must take on a certain amount of personal responsibility in order to avoid many of the physical problems associated with feet. Simple rules of foot care, according to CCOHS, include:

  • washing feet daily with soap, rinsing thoroughly and drying;
  • carefully trimming toenails;
  • wearing clean socks or stockings and changing them daily;
  • using shoes made of leather or canvas rather than synthetic materials;
  • keeping several pairs of shoes on hand and rotating them daily;
  • using foot powder.

Exercise-type activities that can be done at the workstation to help alleviate foot problems include alternately contracting and relaxing the calf muscles, and flexing and straightening ankles and knees. It also helps to walk whenever practical instead of riding.

5) No compromise

Whether you're in an industrial, construction or office environment, employees may have varying opinions as to what types of footwear should be worn. In the interest of style or comfort, some employees may want to stray too far from what is required by federal safety regulations. In these cases, someone needs to be the decision maker. Management must see to it that "compliance" wins out over "fashion."

"There usually is no one solution," says Adams. "The decision maker has to work with the people and get their input. Comfort is probably the biggest factor; discomfort is a disincentive."

Bottom line: All work footwear should provide comfort without compromising protective value.