Human beings are a marvel of natural engineering. Just like any piece of engineering, however, things can go wrong. Whilst this can happen naturally, it can also be of our own making, so taking steps to protect ourselves – and our workers – is of paramount importance.
In this article, let us focus on the feet: why they are important and how we can make our best efforts to protect them. Whilst our focus will be on the footwear itself, we will also discuss other measures to consider.
During our early years, our feet are one of the first things we learn to use. We kick them about aimlessly, having no idea of their purpose and function. Depending upon the individual, this learning process can then go through several stages. Some children realise they can kick their legs to push them along the floor,
which can progress to shuffling on the bum, or more commonly crawling on the stomach. This is a delightful but equally terrifying sign for any parent, that the small defenceless bundle of joy that is their child, is imminently going to be set loose upon the world. That day comes when we learn to stand, then take our first tentative, and somewhat clumsy steps, and our parents suddenly have to hide or lock up everything!
Needless to say, after these early developmental years our feet become integral to our way of life. They can help move us over great distances through walking. We learn other methods of movement using our feet including jumping, climbing, and hopping. They allow us to balance (think of ballerinas, but not always so graceful), or even simply supporting us by allowing us to stand upright.
“taking steps to protect ourselves – and our workers – is of paramount importance”
By not taking care of our feet, many issues can arise, particularly if we use the wrong footwear, or in some cases, no footwear at all. We are not just talking about the fashion faux pas of wearing socks with sandals; ill-chosen footwear can cause severe damage that can lead to lifelong consequences. These consequences are one of the things we will discuss today, as well as what we can do to prevent foot injury and other associated health issues, such as adapting the task, the work environment and so on. We will also look at some of the different types of foot protection available, discussing some of their features, technology, and what to consider during selection of footwear appropriate for your working environment or business.
Jump in with both feet
An injury or issue with just one foot is bad enough, being extremely debilitating, limiting our independence and ability to move around freely. An issue with both feet would be a downright disaster. We would have total reliance on other people to assist us with mobility, and I am not just talking about walking.
Scaffolders and other people working at height would not be able to climb ladders. Athletes would have trouble running or jumping, or taking the strain when balancing, or lifting heavy weights. Some workers would be limited to specific jobs or roles, as foot issues would prevent them from performing certain tasks and accessing certain areas (scaffolding, tower cranes, confined spaces etc). Indeed, long term foot problems could even affect a person’s employability. A nightmare if that person is the only provider for their household, particularly if they are supporting a family. So, what kinds of injuries and issues are we talking about?
It could be something very simple, such as blisters, corns or hardened skin causing pain. Sprains, strains and other muscle injuries are also a common occurrence. It may be a water-related issue such as trench foot, or something related to temperature such as frostbite. Broken bones are also all too common.
Ultimately, however, partial or total amputation of the feet or toes is the worst case scenario. Some of these problems are easily solved with medication, simple remedies, physiotherapy, even just giving the injured party complete rest, ordering them to stay off their foot/feet for a certain amount of time. Other problems, however, would need a much more drastic approach, such as surgical intervention or the fitting of prosthetic limbs. An injured party may have to rely on the use of a cane, crutches or Zimmer frame (or Walker) in order to be able to walk around, whether this is during the recovery phase or becomes a permanent addition to their lives. Others with extremely limited or total loss of mobility would have to depend upon equipment such as wheelchairs or mobility scooters. Even something simple such as using stairs may require the use of a stair lift, or even the use of elevators, as the person can no longer use stairs at all.
“the cost of workplace injuries in 2016/2017 was 5.2 billion GBP”
These physical issues we have discussed are of course concerning. However, we should not make the mistake of ignoring the potential degradation of mental wellbeing, which would be associated with these injuries. Particularly, workers who suffer such injuries for the long term could become extremely frustrated at their inability to work, and indeed lead a normal life, leading to issues such as a drop in confidence, or increase in stress, anxiety and depression.
This “lack of confidence” and mental health effects could still influence an injured party, even if they return to work. The worker may be worried about whether or not the foot could take the stresses and strains that it was used to, prior to the injury occurring. I can speak from my own personal experience of having broken bones in my legs and feet on more than one occasion whilst playing football. Although I had the assurances of the doctors and physiotherapists that my bones had healed well, on each occasion it took me some months, and a great deal of encouragement from friends and family, to finally play the sport again.
So, is the problem of foot related injuries really such a big deal? According to the UK’s safety enforcement body, the HSE (Health and Safety Executive), the cost of workplace injuries in 2016/2017 was 5.2 billion GBP, and 18% of all musculoskeletal disorders were from lower limbs, i.e. legs, knees, ankles and feet (http://www.hse. gov.uk/statistics/overall/hssh1718. pdf). In one particular case in August 2014, Hull City Council were fined £185,000 as a worker slipped on ice and broke three ribs whilst working at the local ice rink. The breach of legislation was due to the fact that “The injured party was not provided with suitable footwear.” Whilst the injuries in this case were not to the foot, the simple matter of not providing the correct footwear to an employee led directly to the incident, and the devastating consequences for him and his employer that followed. The fine is particularly “eye-watering” when you consider the cost of the “appropriate footwear” was only £25.
How can these problems occur?
As highlighted in the case of the council earlier in the article, it could result from something relatively simple, such as a slip, trip or fall, or striking the foot against an object. Often we rush the worker back to work, or the employee themselves does not take enough time to recover from any initial injury, aggravating it in the process. The foot could even be crushed by something, such as a dropped object, or being run over by a vehicle wheel/treads, a common occurrence where vehicles and pedestrians work in close proximity to each other. There could be an issue with feet being trapped in between or under objects/materials, or cuts and burns could occur in various scenarios (the classic “hot spark dropping into a boot” being one of them). It could even be that the footwear itself is the problem.
As highlighted in the Hull Council example, the footwear may be unsuitable for the work environment or surface being walked/stood upon, or the footwear may simply fit incorrectly (be too big or small for the wearer). The footwear could have degraded through excessive use, or poor quality of materials or manufacturing. Some of these footrelated issues may even occur due to people wearing open shoes (such as sandals), or no footwear at all. So, what kinds of foot protection are there, and what features do they have?
The simple answer? Lots. There is an overwhelming abundance of designers, manufacturers and suppliers around the world, all offering a vast range of various products for various markets according to one report by Global Market Insights, the global Foot Protection market is projected to be worth $7.5 Billion USD by 2024.
This footwear could be something simple such as regular office shoes, or be more complex items such as waterproof or heat resistant boots.
Foot protection is often specifically designed for a certain industry, environment or type of work. For example, people working in situations where slipping is a risk (ice, oil spills, etc) may use footwear with soles made of slip resistant materials. High risk industries such as construction and onshore/offshore oil and gas, often require their workforces to use footwear with steel toecaps built in. This was always traditionally in the form of a boot, but you can now also purchase steel toecap ankle boots, formal shoes, Wellington Boots, and even trainers. In Holland, they have even been able to incorporate steel toecaps into their traditional wooden shoes, the klomp.
Steel toecaps are not the only safety feature to be found. The technological advancements in safety footwear are ever expanding to protect against other various forms of hazards. Some footwear now comes with penetration proof soles, preventing injury by stopping sharp objects and materials breaking through the sole. Foot protection can also now have an element of heat resistance. Some foundry boots for use in the steel industry can resist splashes of molten metal reaching incredible temperatures approaching 1,400°C! You can even buy footwear that meets the requirements of “intrinsically safe” zones, as they are designed to prevent electrostatic build up, for example. This is particularly useful for high-risk facilities in the petrochemical industries where preventing production of sparks and ignition sources is a key safety element. Welders’ boots can be specifically designed with a metatarsal guard on top of the boot, protecting the entirety of the top of the foot from hot metal sparks and other hazards.
Foot protection not only protects the workforce from physical harm, but also helps to prevent lowerlimb related health issues. Lots of safety footwear is designed to be “breathable”. This helps to prevent the build-up of moisture and heat in the shoe, by limiting sweating, decreasing the risks of the associated health impacts occurring, such as the presence of athlete’s foot and fungus. Safety footwear is also becoming lighter in weight, easing the strain being carried by the feet. This is because designers and manufacturers are using softer, more flexible materials, meaning less chance of blisters and similar injuries caused by chafing and rubbing on the skin. This ultimately also provides the users with the additional benefit of greater comfort. Often something seemingly simple such as footwear that rubs or does not fit correctly can cause irritation and other mental issues with the workforce. A happy worker is a healthy worker, after all. Due to the development of these new materials, some safety footwear is completely metal free, whilst still offering the same protection as a traditional steel toecap boot. Aluminium, thermoplastic polyurethane (PTU) or other composite materials are now used in place of the traditional steel. So how do you know what foot protection is right for your workers and business?
“safety is an all encompassing part of any business”
Whatever footwear you choose, fit-testing sessions are a crucial part of the process. This ensures that the workers get the correct sizes, and they are comfortable with wearing what has been purchased. It is also a good idea to initially procure a sample from your safety equipment supplier for some of the workers to try out. This will allow them to provide you with feedback. They themselves may even be able to give you recommendations based upon footwear they have used in the past. Another reason you may want to purchase samples from different manufacturers, is to test their claims about the footwear’s performance. All of this is important, as the last thing your business wants is to purchase hundreds of boots that workers will not wear, or procure footwear that does not perform as advertised. You should also consider the specific tasks, and associated hazards, that the workers are involved with. The traditional steel toecap boot may be sufficient for the job, however, you may also require more specific footwear, such as welders’ boots, or slip resistant foot protection. The work environment should also be considered when assessing your foot protection needs. Wet environments will need footwear that is waterproof, hot environments will require heat resistant footwear, and cold environments will require footwear with some sort of thermal lining. If you are a contracting company, you may come across sites and companies that also have their own specific requirements for using safety footwear. For example, are they laceup or non-lace? Do they have to meet any specific safety ratings or standards (such as EN ISO 20345:2011 for Europe, or AS/NZS 2210.3:2009 for Australia/New Zealand)? Are they one-time or limited use only (such as when working with radioactive or other hazardous substances/ materials)? Consideration of specific regulations and legislation is also something to bear in mind, as this may change from location to location. “Bench-marking”, or in other words, doing a comparison of your site or business to those that are similar, can also aid you in the decision making process.
So, foot protection is not just about giving your workers some steel toecap boots and away they go. Comfort, durability and cost are only three of the factors you need to consider. As I mentioned before, involving the workforce in the testing and selection of safety footwear can save you a lot of headaches.
If you still harbour any doubts or concerns, ask your local suppliers and manufacturers, so you can research and appropriately choose the correct footwear for your business activities. As with any safety issue, you could approach your local safety authority, specialist consultants and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) specialists for advice and guidance.
Don’t forget the bigger picture. We focused specifically on the footwear itself in this article. Remember to bear in mind that safety is a large, all-encompassing part of any business, so also look at other additional control measures you could put into place. This could include using nonslip surfaces, softer flooring materials (e.g. carpet instead of tiles), giving workers plenty of breaks and rest areas so they are not on their feet all day, maybe even installing items such as escalators, lifts and travellators if appropriate. Safety is a journey, but by considering what we have discussed today, you can walk down the right path for your colleagues and organisation.