Having appropriate footwear is vital to help workers avoid slips, trips and falls, the most common cause of injury in the workplace. But how do you go about choosing the right shoes for your staff and what should you consider?
The odd slip on a wet floor or the occasional trip while walking across the yard can be easily written off as an infrequent occurrence with minimal consequences. But slips, trips and falls while at work should not be underestimated or overlooked.
“Many people don’t see slips and trips as a real issue,” says Kim Van Deere, chartered quality professional and field consultant for QMS International. “But these incidents can lead to limb or joint fractures and long-term problems, including osteoarthritis.”
Indeed, slips, trips and falls, while seemingly innocuous and low risk, remain the largest cause of injuries in the workplace, with 29% of all non-fatal injuries to employees in 2019/20 being the result of these incidents, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). While for some this may result in a bruise or two, for others the consequences can be extremely serious. One case study recorded by the HSE, for instance, details how a fast-food worker slipped on a wet floor, which resulted in 35 litres of boiling oil from a frier being knocked over and spilled over them.
Absences, lost production, and other costs caused by injuries inflicted this way can be costly for organisations, even if the injuries are not severe. Because of the common nature of the issue, the HSE estimates that slips, trips and falls on the same level cost UK employers around £512 million in 2019/20 – a staggering sum resulting from something so seemingly trivial.
Tackling the cause of these injuries can therefore go a long way to improving health and safety in the workplace, protecting workers from injury, and cutting the costs to businesses. To do this, employers therefore need to focus on key slip, trip and fall hazards, which includes the wearing of appropriate footwear.
Tackling the Issue with Footwear
Wearing the right footwear won’t completely remove the risk of slips, trips and falls, which can also stem from contamination, cleaning, the environment, flooring, and workers’ behaviour, and should not be seen as a catch-all solution. However, the right footwear can add another level of protection, particularly in cases in which the other variables cannot be improved or controlled in any other way.
But, choosing the right footwear for your workers can be complicated. The market is saturated with options and is made more complex by the wide range of terminology employed to describe performance, which can include ‘slip-resistant’, ‘anti-slip’ and ‘improved grip’, all of which may actually mean the same thing. Confusingly, terms such as ‘oil resistant’ do not necessarily refer to slip resistance, but to how well the footwear withstands contact with the substance.
Making the right choice is made even more important by the fact that choosing poorly can actually increase the chance of a slip, trip or fall. Footwear that hasn’t been matched to its conditions can make a slip more likely, while ill-fitting or poorly maintained boots or shoes can lead to trips and falls.
So, what do you need to know when selecting footwear to reduce slips, trips and falls, and what should you look out for?
Establishing your Needs
The first thing you need to do, asserts QMS International field consultant Chris Case, is carry out a detailed risk assessment to establish exactly what kind of footwear your employees need. “It is a common misconception that you just need safety boots, but this isn’t always the case,” he explains. “The job itself needs to be properly risk assessed to provide PPE based on the exact activities carried out. Sometimes standard boots just won’t cut it.”
This is because different shoes or boots will be made to meet different conditions. For instance, footwear that performs well on floors that are wet with water may not be ideal for conditions in which oil is commonly found on walkways. Not everyone will need maximum protection either; a steel-toe boot would be overkill for a retail worker who carries out their job on the main shop floor.
To understand your needs clearly, you therefore need to know what work your employees carry out and where they perform it. Do they work in a kitchen where spills and wet floors may be an issue? Are they employed in a factory where dust on the floor is common? Or perhaps they need to walk safely across a construction site? When answering these questions, you also need to bear in mind that different employees within your business may have different needs – even if they are working in close proximity.
Chris Case explains: “In a previous role, I had two main areas for work, in which the footwear requirements were totally different despite the workers being about 100 metres from each other. One set of workers were in an electrostatic discharge (ESD) controlled environment, so they needed ESD safety boots. However, my laboratory staff didn’t need such big boots, so they wore safety pumps instead.”
Another important consideration is the movement of your employees. If an office worker wearing smooth-soled dress shoes or high heels needs to visit the production floor of a manufacturing business, they will need to change shoes.
When carrying out your risk assessment, make sure you consult your staff as they will be the ones who will be able to give you a real idea of the likelihood of slips, trips and falls and how their current footwear performs. Don’t forget to consider the needs of any temporary or contractor staff, too.
Setting the Standard
Once you understand your staff’s needs, you can begin your search.
As a minimum, you should look for footwear that has been tested to the ISO 20344:2021 Standard (formerly ISO 20344:2011). This Standard incorporates the methodology for testing PPE footwear both as a complete item and as component parts.
When it comes to slip resistance, you should see if the footwear sports SRA, SRB or SRC codes. These codes indicate what slip tests the footwear has met. SRA means that it was tested on a ceramic tile coated with a dilute soap solution; SRB indicates that the footwear was tested on a smooth steel surface covered in glycerol (which has the same attributes as oil); while SRC means it was tested under both of the previous conditions. For comparison, look at the coefficient of friction (CoF) test values – the higher the value, the greater the slip resistance. Of course, these tests do not cover all conditions that may be experienced in the workplace. Because of this, the HSE has also created its own footwear slip resistance rating scheme, known as GRIP.
“as a minimum, look for footwear that has been tested to the ISO 20344:2021 Standard”
The scheme rigorously tests footwear to measure and grade the slip resistance of footwear from one to five, five being the highest level of anti-slip resistance. Ratings four and five also achieve a specified level of grip with glycerol, used to simulate oil. By doing this, the HSE hopes to help employers choose footwear with a risk-based approach, and their five-rated footwear certainly seems to make a difference. For example, a study by the University of Salford in 2020 found that 5-rated GRIP shoes reduced the number of slips among NHS workers by 37% compared to normal footwear1. However, the scheme remains voluntary for manufacturers, which means that you may still need to request further information when looking to purchase new footwear.
When examining footwear, you should also look at the tread to help you decide if the footwear will be appropriate for your workplace. A close-tracked pattern is more suited for indoor conditions that involve fluid contaminants whereas a more open pattern is usually more suitable for outdoor settings or those which involve solid contaminants. Think about if there are clear channels to allow water or oil to be channelled away from the sole, and if there are circular grips to help prevent hydroplaning too.
Once you think you have the right selection, you should carry out your own trials with employees and collect feedback. This trial should take place with a representative sample of your employees and over enough time to give you useful results.
A Care for Comfort
Footwear can be submitted to all kinds of tests, but these do not always indicate that the shoe or boot will be comfortable to wear.
Comfort may feel like a bit of a ‘nice to have’ in the realm of safety footwear, but it can play an important role in their success. “Ill-fitting, uncomfortable boots can make it hard to concentrate,” points out Kim Van Deere. “This creates an imported risk in the workplace and could make accidents more likely as the employee is distracted. Uncomfortable footwear may also mean that an employee is reluctant to wear it in the first place, which could mean they are more likely to slip, trip or fall.” It should also be remembered that ill-fitting footwear can lead to callouses, bunions, foot deformities and even back pain, which could lead to employee absence in the future.
Finally, painful footwear can lower the morale of workers and make leadership look unconcerned about their well-being, all of which can lead to poor staff retention.
Paying attention to getting the right fit and selecting comfortable footwear is therefore an important concern and questions about this should feature in your trial tests so that you can see what your employees think.
To ensure that the footwear you select is comfortable enough, you should check that your employees try on their shoes or boots with the socks that are usually worn. In winter, it is possible that a second pair of shoes or boots in a larger size may be needed in order to accommodate extra socks or thicker socks for warmth. If supportive soles or other orthopaedic inserts are needed, these should also be worn when the shoe or boot is tried on to test for the fit. Make sure you check the weight of the shoes or boots too – heavy boots worn all day can result in fatigue, which could then lead to an employee tripping.
Sizing and weight for women should also be considered. “There’s lots of disparity between men’s and women’s sizes,” points out Kim Van Deere. “This makes comfort a real issue and can affect the likelihood of staff of all genders being able to enjoy equal comfort and protection at work.”
A 2016 survey carried out by organisations including the trade union Prospect and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) confirmed the issue2. It found that 57% of the women who took part in their survey reported that their PPE sometimes or significantly hampered their work, which could lead to accidents. In the survey, only 29% of the women questioned said that their PPE was designed for their sex. Checking to see if your footwear provider offers women’s sizes should therefore be factored in to ensure that all of your staff enjoy comfortable footwear.
Making it Last
You may pick the best footwear for the job and get the thumbs-up from your employees, but this won’t count for much if the condition of the footwear is allowed to quickly deteriorate due to wear, tear and poor storage. “You need to find ways of prolonging the life of the boots in line with manufacturer’s guidance. This will increase their longevity and their safety,” cautions Kim Van Deere.
For instance, footwear that is covered in mud means that the tread in the soles will not help the wearer to maintain traction on the ground. For this reason, boots need to be regularly cleaned or brushed to ensure the tread is able to do its job. If you do notice that the tread clogs easily, you may need to think about switching to footwear that has a more open tread. When advising or encouraging cleaning, make sure that your employees take the material of the footwear into consideration – if it is made of leather, employees will need to polish and treat it in order to maintain it.
“soles covered in mud mean that the tread will not help the wearer to maintain traction on the ground”
Footwear needs to be regularly inspected for wear and tear too. The heel and the area covering the ball of the foot should be given particular attention as these are key for slip resistance. Smoothness or cracks are indicators that the footwear should be replaced. If an employee notices that they are beginning to slip, this is a sure sign that the grip is deteriorating.
Longevity can also be elongated with the correct storage. A cool, dry place away from direct sunlight is ideal. Drying the footwear if it gets wet or if the wearer’s feet get hot is also important – you may like to consider a drying rack or other facilities for this purpose.
In addition to ensuring that the footwear remains safer for longer, maintaining it properly also increases its cost-effectiveness for you. If you can ensure that footwear is properly cared for, you may even want to consider spending a little more for a better-quality product, something that your employees will certainly appreciate.
Implementing Key Processes
To ensure you choose the right footwear, that staff wear it correctly and that it is maintained properly, you need to create the right processes within your business.
Laying out how you conduct risk assessments for footwear, how the footwear is selected, how you choose suppliers and how new items of PPE are trialled within your business can ensure that you do not waste money on equipment that is not fit for purpose. If you have ISO 45001, the standard for occupational health and safety, these processes will build on the procedures you must have in place to procure equipment and involve your staff.
You should also create policies that clearly lay out who needs to wear footwear PPE, what kind, and where. This should be communicated to relevant staff members and signage created as useful reminders. For instance, you may want a sign that reminds office staff to switch shoes or put on shoe covers when entering a production area.
“implementing processes in the workplace to reduce slips, trips and falls occurrence can make a huge difference”
While the onus is usually on the employee to maintain workplace footwear, you can also implement training processes to ensure your staff know how to look after their PPE. This could be particularly useful as part of an employee’s induction training. Alternatively, you could demonstrate a further duty of care to your employees by creating processes that schedule regular footwear checks, including boot-fitting.
Best Foot Forward
Slips, trips and falls in the workplace may be easy to overlook or downplay, but implementing processes to reduce their occurrence can make a huge difference to the health and safety of your employees. While not a fix-all solution, comfortable, well-fitting, well-maintained footwear can be extremely helpful, provided it has been chosen to cope with your unique working environment. By understanding what qualities to look for and testing your choice with a representative sample of your workforce, you can help to ensure that your employees are comfortable and able to work safely.