An estimated 120,000 men and women suffer job-related foot injuries every year.1 Whether the work happens in manufacturing plants and steel yards or on construction sites and farms, the need for protective footwear remains an important issue in creating safer work environments.

OSHA mandates that employers need to ensure that each employee uses protective footwear when working in areas where there is a danger of foot injuries — regulation OSHA 1910.136 (a). Furthermore, OSHA requires every employer to conduct a hazard assessment to determine workplace risks and the appropriate types of personal protection equipment (PPE) that is needed — regulation OSHA 1910.132 (d). It is not the employer’s responsibility, however, to provide such PPE for their workers.

In a marketplace of hundreds of work boots with varying technologies and features, choosing the right pair can seem overwhelming. Having an understanding of what to look for is the first step in finding the right boot for the right job. Knowing what you need to protect your feet before you’re in a situation that warrants protection may save you from a serious occupational injury.

First things first

When purchasing protective footwear, it is important to consider your work environment to assess your protection needs. For example, if you’ll be working with exposed electrical wires, you’ll want boots that offer electrical hazard protection. Find out what types of elements you’ll be exposed to on the job, and choose your boots accordingly.

When trying on footwear, wear the same socks you’d work in to ensure proper fit. Poorly fitting footwear can cause slips, trips and falls and increase your chances of becoming one of the thousands injured on the job each year. Chris Williams, director of safety for Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), suggests doing research before shopping.

“I encourage people to go out on the Web and research boot manufacturers before they go try them on,” Williams said. “You want to do background research and ask: Will this fit my needs?”

Workers should look for boots that meet or exceed ASTM certification. While most manufacturers will include information on the box, visiting Web sites or talking to salespeople can help as well, according to Williams. Contacting your company’s safety director for suggestions or guidelines will also aid in choosing the correct boot.

Handling the elements

Leather boots with rubber bottoms are often the best choice for heavy work in cold weather. Because leather is a porous material, it allows perspiration to evaporate, letting feet “breathe.” Leather boots can be waterproofed with certain products; however, products block the pores in the leather, which locks moisture and sweat in. Boots with waterproofing capabilities are best for workers standing in water or slush. Technologies like GORE-TEX™ use a breathable waterproof membrane to keep feet and boots dry.

Cold weather also requires insulation. Selecting socks made from polypropylene will keep feet warm and dry by “wicking” moisture away from the skin, while layering with a thicker wool sock will keep feet warm. Boot insulation often comes in a variety of thicknesses to suit varying climates and seasons. By selecting a breathable boot that is both insulated and waterproof, workers can keep feet dry and comfortable year round.

Safety and comfort components

Steel-toe and safety-toe boots help protect toes from getting crushed if something falls on them, as well as offer puncture protection from nails, wire and other intrusive foreign objects that hit the toe box. Recently, footwear manufacturers have been incorporating advanced carbon fiber technology into work boots. The carbon fiber has the strength of steel and can be up to 50 percent lighter. Resistant to heat and cold, and non-conductive to electricity, it is a lightweight option that is equally as protective as the steel counterparts. An added bonus is that these carbon-fiber safety shoes can pass through security checkpoints at airports because they are metal-free.

“In the last ten years, construction protective footwear has made leaps and bounds and will continue to do so,” Williams said.

Today’s advances in comfort technologies provide many options and improvements to work boot design. Insole and outsole gel inserts, compression pads and shock-absorbing technology will help reduce the impact from each step, giving the wearer a more comfortable experience during a grueling workday.

The sole issue

Choosing the right sole for the work at hand can protect the wearer from electrocution, slips on various substances and any other number of work hazards. First and foremost, the manufacturer should confirm that the boot and sole are ASTM compliant. When shopping for work footwear, consumers can choose from different combinations of static-dissipating (SD), slip-resistant (SR) and electrical hazard (EH) properties in their design.

Traditionally, a rubber sole is important, especially for workers near electricity. Rubber soles are generally more oil and slip resistant, and a lug sole features rubber knobs that provide better traction. SD and EH boots reduce the static or electrical charge that may put people and the manufactured product (like software) at risk. Vibram soles are perfect for everyday use, and are very tough and durable, while Kevlar soles withstand extreme temperatures like hot asphalt.

Using removable orthotic insoles can help cushion the impact of each step, giving the wearer a more comfortable boot. Removable insoles are easy to replace once the cushion breaks down and can extend the life of a work boot, adding an additional level of support.

Alternative styles

The classic work boot recently has been joined by alternative types of work footwear, providing the same superior protection in a variety of styles. Athletic-inspired styles, loafers and hikers can all meet the necessary safety requirements and feature safety toes, insulation and other waterproof and insulation technologies.

“You shouldn’t put looks over safety, but the line of protective footwear out there offers any number of choices,” Williams said.

Take good care

Once you’ve found that perfect pair of work boots, maintenance and upkeep is important to the longevity of the boot. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection recommends inspecting footwear regularly, cleaning and conditioning the leather often, and changing out fraying laces that could get caught in equipment during the workday. Checking for cracks in the soles and ensuring that the leather is not separating from the outsole will help keep feet dry for the life of the boot.

Protective footwear is as important a tool to the workers as the equipment they use on the job site. Take time to assess your work environment, the footwear’s safety and comfort components and the proper fit when purchasing your next new pair of work footwear to ensure a comfortable day on the job.