It may feel like you’re getting rid of trustworthy old friends, but footwear expert Petr Kovarik says that replacing worn out work boots is the smart thing to do.

“Footwear has a ‘useful life,’” says Kovarik, a member of the product development team at Wolverine, a leader in the safety footwear market and a manufacturer of both casual and workplace shoes, boots and apparel based in Rockford, Michigan. He’s seen boots with ragged outsoles, exposed toe caps, open uppers and protruding footbeds. “In that condition, a boot doesn’t really offer significant protection from chemicals, slippery surfaces or electrical shocks.”

Certain activities can cause specific parts of the boot to deteriorate faster than others. The outsoles of boots that manipulate foot pedals or walk up grated steel steps will wear thin even while the rest of the boot appears to be in good condition.

Excessive wear in steel-toed boots may actually increase the risk of electrical shock, says Kovarik. “When your job requires you to be on your knees a lot, or to kick things a lot, you can wear the leather off the toes so that the caps are exposed. In certain dangerous situations, the cap can arc.”

Put your best foot forward

When deciding on new footwear, workers should first check with their employer to see if there are any specific requirements for their footwear, like static dissipating properties. Next, they need to assess the risks and tasks of the work environment.

Shoes with flat, “wedge” bottoms are ideal for flat surfaces, Kovarik says, but workers who climb ladders or walk up stairs should look for heels with a 90 degree angle that will give them a firm footing on rungs and steps.

“People who deal with heavy loads sometimes prefer shoes that do not flex much. They need support and stability, not cushioning and flexibility in their footwear.”

“The best slip resistance design features are grooves that have a certain width and depth to them,” says Kovarik. “The grooves need to run across the outsole and channel out any contaminants that the wearer steps on.” The texture of the outsole bottom surface is also important. “A smooth surface works well on a concrete floor or dry surfaces, but performs rather poorly on contaminated surfaces.”

Uppers made of heat and chemically resistant materials are best for reducing the chance of heat and chemical exposure. “In a high-heat environment, the most important feature is that boots be closed, with no vents and as few seams as possible so that you’re not weakening the upper,” says Kovarik.

Rubber is still the most commonly used sole material and offers plenty of protection against oil, water, moisture, abrasion, punctures and some chemicals. Kovarik notes that polyurethane compounds have improved over time, but their increasing popularity over the past 20 years has more to do with comfort than safety. “Polyurethane offers cushioning properties and is lightweight, but is not as durable (as rubber) and does not protect against heat or sharp objects like glass, metal chips and wiring.” The best puncture protection includes rubber outsoles that have cleats and a thick base, with a steel plate or newly engineered aramid fabrics placed between the insole and the midsole.

Remember that, with safety boots, “broken in” eventually gives way to “broken down.” Wearing the correct footwear won’t do any good once its useful life is over.