Elite athletics are an extreme example of the importance of the right foot-wear ‘at work’. To the Usain Bolts of this world, it’s all about speed, grip and control. But for many of us, the right footwear is an essential part of our managing health and safety risks in the workplace.
It was the marathon at the Rio Olympics 2016, and Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge streaked home to win gold in a time of 2:08:44. Ethiopian Feyisa Lilesa was next across the finishing line a minute later to claim silver. American Galen Rupp was third, grabbing bronze with a time of 2:10:05.
Three men from different countries but, when they climbed onto that podium in Brazil, they had one thing in common. They were wearing the same shoes, a Nike prototype later released as Nike Vaporfly 4%, which were then seen on the feet of pretty much every elite runner. At least, those sponsored by the American multinational.
Three years later, super-shoe technology hit the athletics track with the same sportswear company’s prototype spikes. Those who wore them were reportedly running some incredible times.
It is said that the competitive advantage of these shoes was generated by helping the athletes to run more economically, using less energy per stride.
Was this leap into the future giving those sportsmen and sportswomen an unfair advantage or was it just progress to be embraced? The debate raged on much to the delight perhaps, of Nike’s marketing team.
In the same way athletes are benefiting from a technological arms race in footwear, we have also witnessed significant advances in safety footwear in recent times. So, let’s take a look at safety footwear more closely.
Grip, comfort and visibility
In common with so many risk controls on our risk assessments, our footwear and other PPE will need to be reassessed, as organisations move their people back into workplaces post-lockdown.
As well as enhanced slip resistance, modern examples of safety footwear are designed to offer protection from impact, chemical hazards and electric shocks. This is PPE that offers comfort as well as protection, combating foot fatigue and enhancing worker health and performance.
And in some areas, we see more parallels between athletic and safety performance. The low-cut, trainer-style safety shoe, for example, is giving wearers movement, grip and protection. Similarly, in those work environments where having a sure footing is vital, we can see footwear with soles not too dissimilar to car or bike tyres. Visibility, with reflective webbing, and waterproof fabrics are now being built in to maximise the safety credentials of shoes where lack of light or the existence of contamination might be a problem.
Slips, trips and falls
The suitability of what a member of your team wears on their feet at work can be the difference between safety and serious injury, which is why careful employers and their safety managers, are now investing in footwear as an important part of their risk controls.
There are few areas of health and safety where what you wear on your feet is more important than tackling the leading cause of accidents in work environments. And one of the biggest causes of over-three-day injuries? Slips, trips and falls.
“the suitability of what is worn on feet at work can be the difference between safety and serious injury”
Common causes in this category of the most ubiquitous of workplace hazards include uneven floor surfaces, unsuitable floor coverings, poor house-keeping, and wet or slippery floors. And regulators can provide a lengthy list of case studies to illustrate the costs of failing to control the risks.
So, consider these three examples of slips, trips and falls in workplaces, gathered by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), where ultimately the right footwear had to be found to address the issues.
Tackling slip problems in a manufacturing bakery
An inspector was alerted to a spate of injuries to workers from slip accidents at a factory producing filled pastry products. Not enough was being done to address slip issues among staff in manufacturing and ancillary areas, the inspector found. An improvement notice was served.
The company decided that it wanted to do more than simply comply, it wanted to get the slip accident rate down to zero. So, it introduced training to managers and their teams in slip prevention.
Staff were issued with different types of ‘anti-slip’ footwear. Some were initially assessed as performing well but were said to be difficult to keep clean, as food debris clung to the tread pattern, said the HSE. Trials of one type of footwear were carried out using some of the male workers. When these were subsequently issued to female workers, they found them heavy on the feet and tiring.
Another footwear type initially considered to have less slip resistance, seemed to deliver better results over time as the tread pattern did not clog with food debris (better for hygiene) and offered greater comfort to many staff, said the HSE.
Rather than looking at replacing the floor, the company introduced measures such as drip trays around machines and conveyors to reduce and capture potential spillages, and introduced ‘anti-slip’ footwear that did not clog. Cleaning regimes were designed to effectively deal with all food spillages, including those that didn’t get onto the floor.
The results? The company found that slip accidents fell to less than a quarter of that which they had been experiencing prior to the preventive measures.
Pet food company reduces slip accidents
One pet food company decided to trial a new style of slip-resistant footwear after concerns were raised about the number of workers slipping on the factory floor.
Work processes made it difficult to prevent contamination from substances such as animal fats from getting onto the floor. The company had tried various options to reduce slipping risks, including anti-slip floors and providing all their workers with footwear as personal protective equipment (PPE).
Unhappy with the level of improvement, the firm’s health and safety managers, in consultation with the workers, decided to trial a new style of footwear that had been shown to be highly slip resistant when tested at the HSE’s Health and Safety Laboratory.
At the end of the seven-month trial, a group of workers using traditional footwear had suffered 15 slip injuries. A similar group using the new foot-wear had suffered no injuries.
The cost of providing the new shoes was more expensive but they lasted longer than their traditional footwear. Because of the cut in slip accidents, and the associated savings in lost time incidents, the company says it saved in the region of £12,000 during the trial period.
Oil company protects ankles
A UK oil company became worried about the number of ankle injuries suffered by staff wearing loose-fitting rigger boots on their exploration
and production sites, both onshore and offshore.
It investigated close-fitting lace-up boots as an alternative and identified three types which gave good ankle support. They made it mandatory for staff and core contractors at their sites wear one of the selected types. Although the new boots did help to reduce ankle injuries, however, staff wearing them started reporting slip issues. Subsequent tests compared different types of boots on different surfaces – gratings, scaffold boards and the standard sheet steel surface – using a continuous, pressurised water spray as a contaminant.
All boots performed well on gratings and scaffold boards, however, two pairs performed poorly in the more challenging test on sheet steel. These were taken out of circulation.
This company’s acceptance criterion was broadly two-fold – ankle protection and slip resistance – and it is now challenging its supplier to meet this new higher bar for safety footwear.
Putting your best foot forward
If choosing the right footwear is important to elite athletes, with the suitable levels of shock absorption, grip and ankle support, it can be a matter of life or death in high hazard industries. In relatively low hazard work environments, it can have a significant impact on reducing lost-time accidents, and consequently, on the bottom line of a business.
As the examples above illustrate, there are a range of factors to consider to ensure you have the right footwear for your workplace and work practices: slip resistance, comfort, durability, toe protection, waterproofing and visibility, to name but a few. Sole tread patterns and compounds are a consideration, as are cushioning and the breathability of the fabric used for the upper, tongue and collar parts of the shoe.
Regulators, of course, recognise the importance of safety footwear as part of a safety management system. The European PPE Directive identifies the requirement for slip resistance as a protective property of footwear, for in-stance, with a demonstration of compliance claimed through the use of mechanical tests. In the UK, the HSE’s GRIP rating scheme for the slip resistance of footwear aims to go beyond compliance, by giving employers data they enable them to take a proportionate approach to adopting safety footwear.
For low hazard environments, one-star or two-star footwear is recommended as part of the scheme. In the most challenging of work environments, five-star footwear may be required to control the risks of slips.
Other control measures
Of course, PPE, including safety footwear, is usually seen as the last line of defense in the hierarchy of controls and should be used in conjunction with other control measures. So, if this is a risk assessment on slips, trips and falls, you will consider controls such as keeping floors even, the removal of contaminants, and implementing cleaning regimes.
As more and more organisations ease their people back into communal workplaces, health and safety managers will be reviewing their risk assessments across the board, from fire safety and working at height to mental health and driving for work. And they will be reviewing their controls for slips, trips and falls.
Past President of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and health and safety consultant Craig Foyle says, “It’s incredibly important to manage the risks of slips, trips and falls, but it really needs the business’s investment and time to get it right.
“To keep your workforce safe from harm, you have to set high standards and maintain them. When your team is under pressure because of work deadlines, housekeeping can literally slip down the list. But then someone will slip or trip up and get an injury, and suddenly slips and trips are important again. We can’t wait for accidents to happen.
“It’s about setting the right standards, allowing sufficient time to maintain good housekeeping standards, train your personnel how to deal with spillages, and then act when issues are raised.”
In terms of footwear, he adds, “It is about assessing your work environment and the footwear your people are wearing. And this isn’t just grip – the shoes need to fit well too.”
On this point, Foyle recounts working with one employer who couldn’t understand why their cleaners regularly had slips and trips. The issue, he says, was that the footwear issued to them was in larger sizes only, and for those with smaller feet, the shoes only contributed to the risk.
“it is about assessing your work environment and the footwear your people are wearing”
Managing the risks of slips and trips
When it comes to designing a sound management system for preventing slips, trips and falls at work, what should you include? The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work recommends the following:
Good housekeeping – Keep the working environment clean and tidy, with floors and access routes kept clear of obstacles. Remove rubbish regularly so it does not build up.
Cleaning and maintenance – Regular cleaning and maintenance will minimise risks. Rubbish should be removed regularly, and work areas kept clear. Cleaning methods and equipment must be suitable for the surface being treated. During cleaning and maintenance work, take care not to create new slip and trip hazards.
Lighting – Ensure good lighting levels, function, and position of lights to ensure all floor areas are evenly lit and all potential hazards, e.g. obstructions and spills, can be clearly seen. Lighting levels need to allow safe passage through the premises. Exterior lights may be required as outdoor workplaces must be adequately lit.
Flooring – Floors should be checked for damage on a regular basis and maintenance carried out when necessary. Potential slip and trip hazards to look for include holes, cracks, and loose carpets and mats. In any location, the floor surface should be suitable for the work carried out, e.g. it may need to be resistant to oil and chemicals used in production processes. Coating or chemically treating existing floors can improve their slip-resistant properties. It should be kept clean.
Stairways – Many accidents occur on stairways. Handrails, slip resistant covers to steps, high visibility and non-slip marking of the front edges of steps, and sufficient lighting can all help in preventing slips and trips on stairs. Other changes of level, such as ramps, are often difficult to see. They need to be well marked with appropriate use of safety signs.
Spillages – Clean up spills immediately using an appropriate cleaning method (chemical treatment may be required). Use warning signs where the floor is wet and arrange alternative routes. What caused the spill to occur? Can work methods or workplace be changed to minimise spillages?
Obstructions – Where possible, obstructions should be removed to prevent trips occurring. If it is not possible to remove an obstruction, then suitable barriers and/or warning notices should be used.
Trailing cables – Place equipment so cables do not cross pedestrian routes. Use cable covers to securely fix cables to surfaces.
Footwear – Workers need to have footwear that is suitable for their working environment. Take into account the type of job, floor surface, typical floor conditions and the slip-resistant properties of the soles.
Outdoor workplaces – Outdoor workplaces must be arranged so that risks of slipping and tripping are minimised, e.g. through anti-slip measures in icy conditions and suitable footwear.
Nike’s running shoes, which employed a carbon plate and special foam, caused a stir when sponsored athletes started wearing them to great effect. When asked if it was fair, Kipchoge replied: “We live in the 21st century and we need to accept change. Development goes hand in hand with technology. We should accept technology and marry technology.”
As we ease our way into a different world of work, businesses will be looking at how they can similarly embrace advancements in footwear to enhance the safety of their people. “Responsible employers realise the benefits from preventing slips, trips and falls in the first place,” said Foyle. “Engaging with employees can help them to find sensible solutions that can benefit everyone. Reduced accidents, improved productivity and a workforce that feels valued is a definite recipe for success.”