Protective work footwear seems like a simple enough subject. But the fact is, there is much more that goes into purchasing a pair of truly protective footwear, and there are many variables that can determine which pair is right for each individual and each work site. The science and testing behind protective footwear is endless; so without getting bogged down in all the technicalities, here’s a crash course on the subject.

Protective toe
There are several primary safety components in a pair of work boots; the first and most obvious is the protective toe. When searching for protective toe boots, make sure they meet the current ASTM International standards. ASTM testing ensures that the toe area of the shoe meets standards for impact and compression resistance. There are three main materials used to create a protective toe: steel, aluminum and non-metallic composite. While each offers a different advantage to the wearer, all three must meet the same ASTM standards.

There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding protective toe footwear — it’s uncomfortable, it’s hot, it’s heavy. That’s not necessarily true. Most of today’s protective toe footwear is quite comfortable. Comfort is often simply a matter of taking the time to find a pair that’s right for you.

Metatarsal guard
An extension of the protective toe is a metatarsal guard, or “met guard.” This is a guard that covers the instep of the foot and protects the metatarsal bones. Met guards also must meet standards set by ASTM that are similar to the toe impact test, but are modified to accommodate the metatarsal guard.

The two basic forms of met guards are external (where the guard safely laps over the back edge of the toe cap on the outside of the shoe) and internal (where the guards are built into the boot). Both are tested to the same ASTM standards, so the met guard you choose is based on workplace requirements and personal preference.

Two other features to look for in protective footwear are electrical hazard (EH) and static dissipative (SD) — also regulated by ASTM. Many people make the mistake of assuming that EH and SD are the same thing — a dangerous misconception. Choosing the wrong one could literally be the difference between life and death.

Simply put, the construction of EH footwear is designed to provide secondary protection from electrical hazards through grounding. This technology has been around for a long time. An electrician or anyone else working with or around live currents would benefit from an EH boot. That way, if they were to accidentally contact an open electrical circuit, electricity would encounter an insulating layer between the wearer and the ground.

SD footwear, on the other hand, is designed to reduce the accumulation of excess static electricity in the wearer’s body. This is a technological feature that has been developed within the past two decades. SD boots are made from conductive and dissipative materials to provide a direct path for static flow from the foot to the ground. Anyone working with electronic components needs SD boots so they don’t inadvertently damage the parts they’re handling through static shock. SD boots do provide limited protection against electrical hazards, but not to the extent of an EH boot. All EH and SD boots must also have protective toes to meet their respective ASTM standards.

The characteristics of EH footwear generally function for the life of the boot but could be adversely affected by moisture. The footwear should be checked to see if metal has become embedded in the bottom of the sole and/or if the sole has been cracked. Damaged soles should be replaced. SD footwear ideally should be checked before every shift in a high-tech environment because SD characteristics could be compromised with no visual change to them.

Slip resistance
Another major variable in protective footwear is slip resistance. Unlike the features already discussed, there is no clear-cut standard for slip resistance currently backed by ASTM. Testing methods — like Mark II and James — do exist but are limited in their relevance to real-world work conditions and need to be kept in perspective.

What makes slip resistance so hard to measure is that it is relative to so many different factors: flooring, foreign materials on the floor (such as water, chemicals, oils, etc.) and the wearer’s individual walking style. What is “slip-resistant” for someone working on a gravel surface is completely different than what is slip-resistant for someone working on slab concrete.

In regards to slip resistance, safety directors should invest in doing their own testing on their particular work sites, and consult with their protective footwear sales representative as needed for input. If you find something that works, stick with it.

Back to basics
While these features and technologies in protective footwear have evolved, the basic materials used in footwear manufacturing have remained relatively unchanged. Yes, there are boots available made of new synthetic materials that do have their advantages. But generally speaking, leather, rubber and polyurethane still make the best work boots. Leather can endure a lot of punishment while staying very breathable. It also conforms to the wearer’s foot for improved fit and comfort.

Comfort and proper fit are two of the most important considerations when selecting a good pair of work boots — regardless of which protective features you need. An uncomfortable worker is less productive. More importantly, an uncomfortable worker is more easily distracted, which can lead to mistakes and accidents on the job.

To find out what’s comfortable, a pair of boots should always be tried on and worn around for a bit. Walking into a store and just grabbing a pair of boots in your size is never a good idea. Even if you’ve owned the exact same boots before, the fact is that footwear is made in factories, and construction can vary. A size 10 boot that was made last month might not fit exactly the same as a size 10 boot that was made yesterday.

To ensure proper fit and maximum comfort, safety directors — and individual consumers — should always make sure they purchase boots from an educated, correctly trained professional who can assist in accurate fitting. The service is worth a little extra money.