Protecting your feet is, in my mind, the most critical aspect of any effort to prevent injury. Sure, having your head pulped and mangled or taken off outright isn’t a walk in the park, but then you can’t walk anywhere without feet. Having good footwear will not just protect your feet but can save you from chronic backaches, balance issues, and a host of other problems that you probably would never consider.

Family footsteps

I grew up on a farm and rarely wore a shirt or shoes (truth be told I’m still not that crazy about wearing pants, but that is a story for another time and another publication). Seriously, the only reason I know for certain that I owned shirts and shoes was because I would have to wear them to church on Sunday, which, when you think of it, is probably the last thing that Jesus would wear to the synagogue. 

I was pretty lucky and generally only required a tetanus shot or stitches twice a summer. My brother, however, was not so lucky; he was always injuring his feet. I remember when this rural thought leader was about eight and barefoot in the barn with my dad and I, when he started punching the tongs of a pitch fork against the cement floor of the barn between his bare feet. More out of irritation than for concern for my brother’s safety my dad told him to knock it off twice, but of course my obstinate brother just had to do it one last time. He slammed the pitch fork into his foot and punctured it all the way to the floor. He tried in vain to pull it out and my dad, who himself grew up on a farm, grabbed the handle of the pitchfork and with a hearty yank removed it from my brother’s foot. He looked worried, but after carefully examining the tongs of the pitchfork was relieved to see that they were undamaged, at which point he turned to my brother and told him to quit his damn crying.

I remember looking at his foot. There were two red marks on the top of his left foot. He looked like he had stigmata, that is, if the Centurion who nailed Jesus to the cross had been drunk on the job. My brother grew up to be a miserable person who refuses to have any contact with me so for all I care they could cut off his feet and throw them into a woodchipper.

“I was sad because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet; so I took his shoes”

But let’s not dwell on that. My late father had flat feet that kept him out of combat in WWII. He couldn’t march great distances. He was judged fit for service, however, something in those days meant a lot to men (unfit for military service typically was code for criminal behaviour, mental illness, or other factors that people don’t like to talk about today.) My dad, like most men his age, was sorry he didn’t get to see combat, but I suspect he was better off having not seen the horrors of war. He did see the horrors of South Carolina, which for me would have been enough.

For my part I inherited my father’s foot problems. Foot problems didn’t keep me from military service, rather cowardice and a really poor attitude toward authority figures. I did, however, work in a restaurant throughout my teenage years and learned the importance of not just wearing shoes (the health department was surprisingly uptight about that) but of selecting the right shoes.

I have feet like an elephant: short, wide, and flat. I wore arch supports for most of my life to prevent my knees, hips, and lower back from aching. One day a shoe salesman suggested the kind of shoes that postal workers wore and I was teased relentlessly by my friends for wearing mailman shoes, but after only a few weeks all my pain was gone and I didn’t care what my friends had to say about my shoes. I may have even suggested that I would soon be putting one of those shoes in their asses, but at my age my memory is dubious on the specifics of sentiments expressed in my youth.

If the shoe fits

For years I wore shoes that often hurt my feet, but alleviated the other, more severe pain, so I learned to live with it. Two years ago I went to the army surplus store to buy some boots (hey just because I didn’t serve doesn’t mean I don’t know the value of military grade footwear). I was greeted by a nervous young man who, as it turns out, was in the first hour of his first day on the job. (I am not the person you want to be your first customer ever). His manager, sensing that he might flee the store at any minute rushed over to us. I told her what kind of shoe
I was looking for and told her my size. “Are you sure?” aside from asking me if I was sure of my gender it was the dumbest question I could have been asked… or was it? She suggested that she measure my feet to ascertain my actual size. Well, I have never been someone who turned down an offer to have my feet touched and scrutinised by an attractive woman (irrespective of whether or not she sells shoes) so
I told her to have at it.

She told me that in addition to having flat, wide, and short feet I also have tall feet. She suggested that I go with a shoe that was one size larger than the ones I had been buying for 45 years and I did. I changed the size shoe that I buy and have never been happier.

Purchasing considerations

There is probably more to consider when selecting appropriate footwear then when selecting any other PPE, and so you should always consider the following when buying footwear: the task at hand, durability, comfort, and style.

Activity

As my brother’s stupidity so aptly demonstrates, all shoes are designed to offer some level of protection, so when you are selecting shoes think about what you will be doing when you are wearing them. Are you going to be working on a slippery surface? If so, a shoe with good treads and strong water (or even oil) resistance is important. On the other hand, if you run the risk of dropping a heavy object on your foot, a metal or composite toed shoe might be appropriate. Unfortunately for the more frugal among us, one pair of work boots just isn’t appropriate for every potential occupation you might have (I know a lot of fans of my writing get fired a lot.)

My late uncle was once mowing his wet grass while on a hill and wearing sandals. Predictably, he slipped and fell, cutting off three of his toes. When I saw him I told him that there were better ways to trim one’s toenails, and he laughed but then we talked about how difficult it can be to maintain one’s balance (I’ll be honest he never had the balance of an Olympic gymnast) when one has self-amputated one’s toes. Think about the shoes you select, before you start a task – just like you would any other PPE or tool.

“think about the shoes you select, before you start a task – just like you would any other PPE or tool”

Durability

Good protective footwear isn’t cheap. For the most part I have found that there is a trade-off between price and quality (except when you buy custom made Italian shoes from a Facebook Ad only to have the shoes come unglued after I wore them for less than two hours. I hope you are as outraged as I am. Recently I was in New Orleans and I stopped in an odd store that sold alligator shoes (although I was corrected by the owner when I called crocodile shoes alligator shoes – he looked at me like a dog that defecated on the showroom floor.) After checking out the prices I asked if they had a website (a good way to get out of a store that is way over your budget) and he said no. He said that one should never buy shoes without trying them on first and ordering shoes by mail led to a lot of refunds, and poor fits, and returns. His explanation made me wonder about the return policies of mail-order bride retailers(?) but I figured if he got mad because I mistook crocodile leather for alligator leather he might just choke me out if I asked his opinion on the nuances of purchasing concubines from exotic lands. He did give me some very good reasons about why one should try on shoes before buying them, alas I was still musing on the whole ‘mail order bride return policy’ debacle, so I only remember him saying that one could tell a lot about the durability of a shoe by trying it on. I tried on shoes but left without buying any because ultimately, I really wanted emu skin slip-ons (I have always thought that “loafers” hit a little close to home) and sadly he had none.

Comfort

You shouldn’t have to “break-in” shoes (wear them long enough for them to feel comfortable) and believe it or not (your choice; I couldn’t care less) there need not be a trade-off between comfortable shoes and adequate foot protection. Take your time and get shoes that meet your need for adequate protection and that feel comfortable while you stand or walk in them. And don’t worry about taking up too much of a shoe-salesperson’s time; they touch strangers’ feet for a living, they aren’t in any position to judge anyone.

Style

Of course you need to select a style that affords the appropriate protection, but that’s not what I am talking about here (I already covered that, pay attention!) No, what I mean by style is how your shoes look. There’s a place for individuality and footwear isn’t it. Many manufacturers make steel-toed shoes that (while offering all the protection of industrial, serial killer style work boots – think Zodiac if he worked in a warehouse) look like trainers. Because these shoes look so similar to actual trainers many workplaces won’t allow them to be worn.

The serious bit

OK, I have had a lot of good-natured fun talking about footwear, but let’s get serious for a moment. We use our feet a lot – for walking, running, climbing, kicking, and more – and in many cases poorly chosen footwear is to blame, or at very least is a contributing factor to injuries. Slips, trips, and falls remain a consistently frequent cause of injuries and many of them could have been prevented had the proper footwear been selected.

And while we’re on the subject of slip, trip, and fall injuries why don’t safety practitioners teach people how to walk in protective footwear? I have fallen numerous times because I don’t typically wear work boots and have never been trained in how to walk up stairs while wearing them and I am guessing no one reading this has either. Don’t give me that “it’s all just common sense” nonsense either.

Protective footwear is a tool and before performing any task we should ask:

  1. Do I have the right tools to do this task? (and that includes footwear)
  2. Are my tools in good, serviceable condition and free from wear or damage?
  3. Have I been trained in the use of this tool? (by-the-by,  a good footwear salesperson can help you to learn the idiosyncrasies of a given type of shoe. It may sound and feel stupid, but remember they aren’t in a position to judge.

I know many of you are probably asking yourself if I’m off my nut (but then again you’re the one talking to yourself so really, who’s crazy here?!). “They’re just shoes. Does this goofball really expect us to train people on how to walk in shoes?!” Okay… now settle down. I’m not suggesting that you need to conduct a four-hour PowerPoint presentation on how to walk in shoes – it’s precisely those kinds of recommendations that give Safety practitioners the reputation as being water-headed ninnies, but is it really so outrageous to have a conversation with an employee about what considerations he or she made when purchasing footwear? Or better yet, spend a moment or two explaining to your workforce what to look for when selecting footwear?