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Safety Footwear Manufacturers to Consider Foot Health in Their R&D

When good footwear links to good foot health

I was asked to write an article on good foot health as it relates to health and safety footwear. Now, I’m not a doctor, although I’m blessed with both a daughter and son in law who are so I can ask questions regularly whenever I hear of a foot problem. The whole subject of what makes good foot health is something that is dear to my heart.

In fact, I am alarmed as to how few giant global corporations truly have few really qualified shoe experts within their ranks. It angers me immensely when watching some shopping channels flogging shoes as to what nonsense some of the hawkers are claiming. Moreover, it worries me when I see how little product knowledge explanations are afforded by virtual retailing sites and that many of their customers are house ridden seniors with serious aging foot health problems that need professional fitting.

I want this article to be a shoemaker’s approach to discussing what constitutes the correct procedures to ensure good foot health. It will obviously have to include some medical information, but in the main thrust of this essay I want to be concentrating on preventive medicine through designing shoes that are truly functional for their occupational need and not because some celebrity is endorsing them.

Today it’s not easy to be committed to authentic workmanship when it’s so much easier to use vast amounts of hype and advertising to have consumers run to retail stores as lemmings simply looking for status enhancement.

“I am alarmed as to how few giant global corporations truly have few really qualified shoe experts within their ranks”

What is positive is that business is beginning to be forced to rethink moral values, how we are to reposition globalisation, train people for new technologies and above all find some form of gainful activity for the masses and particularly our youth.

Great debate is happening within western politics as to how our outdated political thinking deals with the problems of finding employment for those masses of workers whose jobs have either been outsourced under the advent of globalisation or replaced by computers. Those that remain must now consider the impact on their job security by the next wave of Artificial Intelligence. Trump may talk of finding old school work for miners, but the reality is that to be competitive in this ancient industry, the new mining is being done by machines and they are operated by people trained in video game skills, not those who know how to use a pick and shovel.

But what have these observations to do with good foot health you might well ask?

We in the West are already seeing the impact that job losses have wrought not only in public protest, but also in the health and wellbeing of those who cannot find employment because they have outdated skills. There is a serious stress factor that goes with this ugly scenario.

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As a result of low paying jobs being all that is available for most uneducated people, we see rises in Opioid consumption, a mass interest in the legalisation of Marijuana, excessive drinking, a surge in obesity, rising rates of diabetes and related problems – the list goes on.

Even where jobs are available, we are still faced with a large part of society not being medically fit to do a day’s work and much of that employment requires good healthy feet to aid in the labour.

We often see media shots of celebrities with their outrageous dresses and heeled shoes at major events and the paid commentary on how comfortable it is to wear such footwear, only later to hear a respected grande dame of the group admit to a journalist that the red soles she is wearing represent the blood her feet have spilt in the name of looking good for the media.

In the world of industrial and occupational footwear, such media stories mean nothing. I’m sure a firefighter, no matter what gender, would love to wear stylish sneakers instead of those huge rubber boots to fight fires, but thankfully the functional demands afforded by those huge ‘wellies’ win out over baseless ‘style’.

The same cannot be said for other parts of our health and safety industries, as more and more giant athletic brands permeate the brown shoe industry with their steel toed versions and our health and sciences industry moves more towards ‘chic’ than practicality.

Today it seems there is too much of a rush to buy market share from new quarters and not enough dedication to the thought process of what is truly needed for our new industrial worker.

The health and safety industry is a huge global market, but within that market are literally hundreds if not thousands of different ‘job fitted’ needs and we shouldn’t be thinking that all we need is a selection of basketball, skateboard, running or tennis shoe patterns to keep everyone happy.

As an industry we need to be much more professional in what we offer, with an even greater emphasis on protecting the foot rather than gimmicks.

Good footwear choices should be predicated on the functional needs of the occupational activity to be undertaken, not on whether they look good and some millionaire pro athlete has endorsed that style.

Good foot health emanating from the shoes one wears, is the work of a master shoemaker and not a Madison Avenue advertising guru.

With this article we hope to explore some principles of points to consider or to employ when designing footwear for a functional need.

Good shoe designing starts with an understanding of the human foot. Immediately I would question how many branded organisations have a foot skeleton on their premises, or a pedorthist or biomechanics professional to consult with on a regular basis?

I don’t throw out this challenge simply for attention; I am a firm believer that many of the shoe related problems we find caused by our industry could have been avoided with some basic foot anatomy knowledge when ‘designing’ our footwear.

Designing is an all-encompassing process that builds the foot covering from the inside out; it’s not just a case of external car styling where all the technical work is done by master engineers who test and toil in the inner sanctums of racing car development centres with very little designer profile.

The foot is similar to the hand in design, but when it comes to hands we can rub them, cream them, check them, and flex them regularly. Feet, however, we tend to ignore until later years when usually our age related problems begin and we need to seek out medical services for our feet.

As a provocative comment, I wonder how many giant manufacturing companies actually offer on-site foot health checks on a regular basis?

This sounds like a crazy comment until one researches the fact that the majority of workers doing the same job on their feet for many years may on a regular basis have some minor blisters, corns, callouses and bunions, yet they hide their pains and discomforts because they don’t want to take time off from work to correct those ills.

As one minor example from practical life, years ago I went to my doctor thinking I had broken both my big toes as the pain was intense, but I thought that surely to break them it wouldn’t have been possible with my then lifestyle. It turned out that in my decades of business class global travel and enjoying too much after dinner Port drinking and I had developed gout.

Gout could have turned to more serious medical afflictions that could have in the long term affected my job.

Let’s take a quick overview of what elements can aid good foot health. As a suggestion, perhaps it’s time we as an industry make a little more of a united effort to educate our consumer base that good foot health is a serious subject.

What makes for poor foot health?

There isn’t so much to say that it should be a book complete with photos, but even chiropodists don’t show you the gruesome negatives of not cutting your toenails, sanding your callouses or simply massaging your arch supports on a regular basis.

If you have no time to read too much more of this article, remember these factors:

  • Badly designed shoes have seams that abrade against the foot
  • The toe shape you select should allow your toes to spread so air can circulate and your feet be able to flex and move easily
  • Your lace closing system should allow for the circulatory system to do its job
  • Your shoe linings should be absorbable, breathable, comfortable
  • Your interior insole base should be anatomically contoured
  • Your midsole should be shock absorbing
  • Your sole should service the needs of the surfaces it is used for

So don’t wear the same pair of work boots everyday simply to defray their costs to you – give your shoes time to freshen up. Perhaps I am hoping for too much, but do you know the benefits of upper suppleness and comfort that can flow through to your work day from simply a good shoe polishing application?

For those of you who care about your achy breaky feet, read on.

Maintenance of the skin

The skin is there for a reason, and it’s not just to keep the rest of the body inside. Certain areas of the skin undergo more stresses than other parts. Damaged or abraised parts such as the toe area can cause blisters, which if not cleansed and treated can turn septic. Added to this, constant friction can build up a compacted dead skin cell structure that if not sanded and oiled can lead to serious painful cracks occurring and even bleeding.

Within the skin structure we have sweat glands and blood vessels. Think of your hair structure and how you dote on conditioning your hair, yet you can work bald, but you can’t work with painful sore feet.

Sweat is a bi-product of how our anatomy reacts to excess body heat. Try this exercise: lace your toes tight, then try to work and see how hot your feet become. Sweat (perspiration) is the body’s attempt to regulate its temperature – and it’s not good stuff – it’s bodily excretion, it is not healthy. We need to employ materials surrounding our foot with properties that can wick this foul substance away from the skin’s surface and to eventual dispersal.

For good foot health, it is essential that:

  • Our feet are well ventilated
  • Excretion is removed
  • The skin’s surface is clean
  • Hosiery is washed
  • Shoes are disinfected

Try oiling your feet on a regular basis with aroma therapeutic oils of which lavender or rosemary are good for smell and sage or tea tree are beneficial for any sore feet. This is not a female thing – its good for your feet and the feet of everyone working.

The impact of bone shock on good foot health

I would hope my readers have a reasonable image of the foot anatomical structure. It’s a complex structure of 26 bones per foot. Think of the skeletal structure as like a giant tuning fork. The simplest and most effective explanation of the impact of the skeletal structure on foot health is to have one take a traditional claw hammer, lay it down with the handle to the front and the claw part standing upright at the rear. This is as good a visualisation I can create for you as to the balance of the lower foot and the impact that the Calcaneum bone has on your whole spinal structure as it strikes the ground during the walking phases of mobility. Back ache problems are a serious part of incapacitated workers and by understanding how select materials can dissipate heel impact pain many can learn to live with that problem.

Understanding our internal rubber band structure

We all remember our school PhysED classes and the attention to stretching our tendons, ligaments and muscles. How many women have forgotten those classes when they put on those high five inch heels to go out on the town after 12 hours of ‘soccer mom’ activities in flats? Then they wonder why their feet hurt so much during the partying, so sadly their plans become quickly dissipated by the pain of the high heel foot distortion that they were hoping to allow vanity to overcome.

Well it’s no different for occupational footwear. Dehydration can cause muscular pain. Prolonged ligament stretching can cause permanent overstretch and cause loose fitting joints to occur. Too much standing can impact knee and hip joints and of course the spine. The lesson here being that the more you can support your body’s structure, the better.

The misused bridge structure

We have certain arches built into our feet that have a huge impact on both our mobility and comfort. The inner longitudinal arch and the Footwear | Article transverse arch are the ones we most associate with foot pain and can be caused by too much standing without arch supporting devices. We know this world as one of orthotics and removable insoles.

This is a subject that can fill books all on its own, but it is important to understand its engineering principles and how they affect the most basic of our foot problems. If engineering interests you, take some time to examine the great arch building principles of civilisation. Try walking in the wet sand barefoot and feel the support of the sand to your body. Read up on why the principles of dispersion of energy are important to good footwear insole structures and why ‘Fashion Comfort’ is an oxymoron.

Foot and shoe shape

Until the mid 1800s and the advent of machine welt sewing, it was common for boot and shoemaking to be done with a unilast where there was no left or right last. In those days people were hardy – some even used to work barefoot because of the cost of foot coverings. Wooden clogs were artisan made. Generally those who did have work boots found that dampness along with natural body heat compressed and moulded the vegetable tanned leather uppers and insole bottoms to the individual shape of their foot, all of which was good for making them more comfortable and was one of the key reasons why the Cobbler (who repaired existing footwear) was more popular than the more sophisticated Shoemaker (who only made new shoes). Historical excavations have even shown that it was not unusual for just a half pair to be repaired if only one shoe was damaged.

To stress the importance of good last shapes to better foot health is an important and oft overlooked feature of how we keep our modern day workforces at their tasks. In the past labour was cheap, readily available and the training skills needed were relatively mundane. Today’s machinery, however, is much more costly and skilled operators required for such giants of industrial productivity are not easy to locate. A septic blister caused by ill-fitting footwear is not something today’s management and shareholders want to hear as a reason why major machinery could not operate.

“This should fit you”

Now we will address the “this should fit you” mentality and the problems of self-selection retailing based on price.

Our problems today are still in their infancy, but in my view we are losing our industry control of what constitutes a standardised  sizing system that is needed for the rapidly rising new forms of electronic retailing and self-selection retailing.

The concept of Europoint developed in the early 1960s was meant to be preparation for the emergence of the European Common Market’s need for one common sizing system, but it failed because nations could not drop their nationalism. Later it was the first gulf war that reinvented the need for standardised sizing as Nato forces, including the Americans and Canadians, reinvented Europoint as Mondopoint to ensure we had sufficient supply of military footwear for desert warfare climates.

“today Mondopoint does live on in an abreviated form through Nato and some industrial applications”

Europoint was a series of classic bespoke foot measurements in a 3D last form that had to fit in to a series of measurement areas to qualify as a certain Europoint size. It was supposed to include girth, but it didn’t really work out that way.

Attempts are now being made with 3D rotation plotting.

The beauty of the system was that no country or artistic designer could fiddle with the last shape to make it look more attractive. The box was the size, there was at least a common formula to work from. The fashion modernity had to be incorporated within the box of dimensions.

Today Mondopoint does live on in an abreviated form through Nato and some industrial applications. Hopefully our global industry, with pressure from the supergiant electronic retailers, will bring Mondopoint into the 21st century as a global generic sizing system to be used by all as a commons application.

Last profiles and mobility

Over the next few years, we will see the seriousness of the obesity epidemic and its sister tie in of diabetic health related problems. As such, we will have to give greater awareness to the types of rocker profiles that will be needed to improve ambulation by a grossly overweight and unfit work force.

This is not a subject made in jest. It’s a subject we can no longer ignore.

In the past our limited choices of construction processes made an analysis of optimum toe spring choices low on our scales of importance, but today with the new moulded bottoming processes available to us we can now take into consideration anatomical foot curvature as a benefit to good foot health. This new found stability improvement will enhance the classical needs of toe spring and optimum heel height for certain industrial or driving activities, as well as aid in good body balance and mobility.

Footwear designs

Now we will consider the designs of footwear and how they need to be treated seriously for ensuring good foot health.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, the health and safety footwear industry is in serious danger of being absorbed by the giants of athletic footwear supply, as these behemoths see health and safety as Article | Footwear “today Mondopoint does live on in an abreviated form through Nato and some industrial applications” both a logical expansion and one that they understand better than the fast moving street fashion business. We have much to learn from the reinventions of past technologies that these athletic companies are now reintroducing to a new gullible younger consumer. The use of high frequency welding and skeletal flow moulding technology of the early 1970s now has a place in seam free uppers for work footwear. The days of bulky blister causing footwear locations should be all but gone.

The ability to use shape moulding processes with our new synthetics can also help to improve the snug foot fitting properties of uppers both on the sides of the feet and the walls of the toe caps and heel counter areas.

What these companies have not fully explored is what the impact will be of all these synthetic foot coverings on the health of the foot. Industrial footwear is not a shoe to be worn for a couple of hours then changed for another casual model. Workers spend many hours a day in a single pair of boots and in sometimes torrid conditions. The health problems related to using all synthetic uppers without adequate ventilation and anti-fungal protection are not to be ignored. Dermatitis and other skin rashes caused by friction and perspiration are likely if we do not test what we are trying to input into the industry.

Biomechanical features

There are many applications to consider of biomechanical features to product design.

Professional wear testing procedures, stop camera framing and pressure point analysis have come a long way in the last 50 years and their findings are also important to good foot health and eventual product design. The study of foot pronation and supination aids our understanding of what densities of midsole compounds work best and more importantly where they should be located. Their structure in regards to foot stability and control of shock dispersion can be a major role player in overcoming ankle injuries and bone bruising. Traction analysis can help defeat slippage and help us understand which material compounds work best for different surface conditions. The role of elasticity and plasticity values in synthetic materials should eventually lead us to the development of 3D moulded product coverings that can be located to ‘give’ at certain stress points while remaining protectively rigid in other areas.

Modern lamination

The advancement of new materials technologies, primarily in the outdoor adventure category has given us an abundance of tri-laminate structural sandwiches that can accommodate most of our functional needs when creating the upper structures of tomorrow’s work and health related footwear.

We now have:

  • Specific layers that offer high performance technology, e.g. climate control
  • High wicking values
  • One directional ventilation
  • Anti-fungal protection
  • Quick drying washability

Such values in laminates will greatly improve the functional foot health attributes of health and safety related foot coverings.

Processes and constructions

In an industry prone to living on the back of yesterday’s successes and relying on centuries old constructions to service 21st century industry, it is now good to see the ever rising investment in various forms of direct injection moulding for making safety footwear.

Such injection processes do not need to be built any longer on rigid Victorian era machinery. In fact, with socks like Strobel systems we are able to approach bottoming applications in new ways that just a few decades ago were unheard of. Now, new nonwoven textiles can be used as construction sock linings and be used to dimensionally mould anatomically correct foot bottom contours. Anatomical bottoming has many health related benefits. We will have better weight dispersion, better mobility, and hopefully less abrasion of foot surfaces.

There’s now new thinking as to the role of customised orthotics in industrial wear.

Just as new upper material technology has brought us new non-abrasive and climate controlling materials, so these same applications can be applied to anatomically shaped removable footbeds. Add to this technology the fact that with new midsole moulding, via shim technology we can make allowances for custom orthotics and thus the world of preventive medicine comes to our shoe interiors where so much of the long term foot damage is done.

Midsole technology

Now midsole technology is no longer simply an element in support of sole bottom design. The design of one is not affected by the design of the other anymore save that they need to match contours in their final coming together. Foam moulding technology is now so precise and mould making has become a work of art in its own right, and so we are able to develop midsole components that are specifically aimed at functional needs found as a result of biomechanical research into the subject. Multi density compound applications will help us to build in so many beneficial support systems that protect our most vulnerable anatomical needs.

Sole bottoming

Sole bottoming is just as much a part of the foot health team as others.

For many decades, sole traction qualities were key safety factors in ensuring that employee foot health was protected in the areas of nail penetration, non slip traction, conductivity and chemical reactions. Nothing has changed in those needs, but today’s micro moulding technology now allows for technical inserts to be executed that can specifically be located for known technical danger location points.

To summarise

When I started this article I had no idea how complex it could be simply trying to convey a message to non-medical people and in particular those in the shoe making industry.

The whole time I hit the keyboard I was also simultaneously throwing up thoughts in my head on what a 21st century firefighters wellington boot should be looking like, as in my earlier life I had been involved in ideas for combat footwear and I found the task just as exciting as the myriads of performance athletic shoes I have also worked on.

My message is to start from the inside and work out. We cannot afford to ‘celebritise’ industrial footwear in the name of gimmicks and hype. Health and Safety is a title that means something, we cannot kill the messenger. It’s not a hard task, it just requires a commitment and a moral standard.

Foot health and hot feet can be as little as the type of non-absorbent all synthetic socks you are wearing, or the tight lacing you did across your instep, or just the fact that you bought your shoes without trying them on because you trusted the sizing labels inside the shoe.

Foot health requires nothing more than the K.I.S.S. formula – Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Don’t get carried away with all the serious protective issues of safety and fail to handle the basics.

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Phillip Nutt’s family background in work boots, along with Northampton’s reputation for Goodyear Welts and Doc Martens, exposed him to many of the in depth basics of industrial footwear.
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