Over the years safety footwear has advanced from steel toe capped boots, into a large and expanding business. This is good for choice and cost, but can be a bit of a nightmare for employers trying to select suitable protective footwear for their employees.

Unlike some other areas of Personal Protective Equipment, safety footwear tends to develop along with the current fashions we see on the high street. This has led manufacturers to produce a range of styles and colours to keep pace with customers expectations. This article will expand on some of these areas and show how with good research and planning, a suitable compromise can be reached.

My use of the word ‘compromise’ may cause a few heads to shake, as there is a school of thought that says that there must be no compromise when it comes to safety. But, what you will see is that when it comes to safety footwear there inevitably comes a point when there has to be some compromise as no article of footwear will cover all eventualities.

Covering bases

This is where an understanding of what it is we are trying to protect the individual from becomes relevant. There may be the obvious hazard but what if there are subsidiary hazards to consider? It comes down to carrying out the suitable and sufficient risk assessment process we are familiar with in other areas of safety management. Under the European Community (EC) Directive 89/656/EEC employers are required to carry out an assessment of personal protective equipment to ensure it is correct for the particular risk involved and for the circumstances of its use. This requirement is mirrored in other parts of the world.

To do this we need to consider:

• The task that is being carried out and the specific risks that we need to protect against

• The environment: what conditions will the safety footwear be worn. Will it be indoors, outdoors, on a building site or factory environment? The list is long, but consideration must be given to the main environment that the safety footwear is intended to be worn in otherwise you will be bogged down very quickly and making an informed decision can be difficult to achieve

• The person who is expected to wear the safety footwear? Have a mechanism in place to cater for individuals, who may have specific health requirements. A trip to any shoe retailer for our everyday footwear should alert us to the difference in fit and comfort that can be found when trying on footwear. Why should we expect supplying safety footwear to our colleagues to be any different? The majority will be catered for but there needs to be a set arrangement in place to deal with those that need to be dealt with on a case by case basis. This may be as simple as having a supplier who can supply outside your standard size range, to referring cases to an Occupational Health specialist to provide you with appropriate information on suitable safety footwear as and when required

Should individuals be allowed to choose their own safety footwear?

This option can become a logistical headache, as without all the relevant information, you very quickly have a fashion parade in the workplace with people taking more notice of style and colour than the actual protection value the safety footwear offers.

Once you have identified the hazards you need to protect your colleagues from and have established a supplier who can provide the safety footwear needed to mitigate those risks, you could produce a list of approved safety footwear that colleagues can select from.

What’s available?

So what are the types of safety footwear out there on the market and how can you tell which type or types are best for you? I would like to say that it is straightforward, but as you may have already identified there is a thought process that needs to be applied to get it right. However, this process is not as onerous as it would seem.

The first step is to establish why do you need safety footwear in the first place? Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) should be considered as a last resort, engineering controls and safe systems of work should be considered first. PPE in the form of safety footwear should be provided to deal with any residual risk after consideration has been given to:

• Getting rid of the hazard altogether. If that is not an option how can you control that risk so harm is unlikely

• Can you use a less risky option? Contain any leaks from machines, plant and associated equipment so that they don’t get onto walkways creating slip hazards and the need for slip resistant footwear If you cannot do these:

• Can you prevent access to the hazard? Can you put up guards on workbenches to prevent heavy objects falling on to colleague’s feet? Is there a marked safe pedestrian route that colleagues can take, so that they are not exposed to the hazard?

• Can you look at the way the work is organised to reduce exposure to the hazard? Rather than have someone carry objects from one place to another, can you use some form of mechanical assistance or conveyor system. Restrict entry to hazardous areas

Also remember that the problem of protecting construction workers from standing on nails and receiving injuries though the soles of their boots has been addressed with mid sole protection. This type of protective foot wear should also be considered for other employees such as landscapers and public service workers who might be exposed to needlestick injuries through the soles of their footwear.

Listed below are a few of the more common causes of injury that safety footwear is provided as a control measure.

Slips and trips

The main one is the prevention of slips. Slips and trips in the workplace account for over one third of all reported accidents. As a result a lot of work has gone into reducing these alarming statistics, and the provision of suitable footwear is one of the factors that can be used to reduce the frequency of this type of incident.

The PPE directive indicates that slip resistance is considered a basic requirement of all personal protective footwear. To show this, slip resistance performance should be tested using the European Standard BS EN ISO 13287:2007 – Personal Protective Equipment – Footwear – Test methods for slip resistance.

So any safety, protective or occupational footwear which carries the CE mark and claims to be slip resistant must have been tested and the Co-efficient of Friction (CoF) test data must be available. It should be noted here that any claims that footwear is non slip should be treated with extreme caution. The test standards referred to above must be used as a guide, the CoF values can normally be found in manufacturers catalogues, however this information may not be present if you are purchasing your protective footwear though a general supplier.

In these instances the information must be available in the user instructions that come with the safety footwear. If you still require further information this can be requested from the supplier, this is advisable as you can check the CoF data for test surfaces that are specific to your particular application.

So what is this CoF Test. It is a test method which assesses the ability of the sole of the footwear to resist slipping when tested on a variety of surfaces along in different environments. The Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) have carried out their own studies on this subject and have produced a report which outlines the various test methods used and has taken a sample of safety footwear from the market place and tested them against certain criteria.

The report number is HSL/2007/33, and is entitled ‘Further slip resistance testing of footwear for use at work’. Although this document is aimed at inspectors it does provide useful background information for safety practitioners on the subject of slip resistance. It also underlines the statement that safety footwear which claims good general slip resistance may not perform well in demanding conditions, and that no one type of footwear will be ideal in all situations.


This brings us back to our initial starting point and clearly identifying the hazards we are looking to protect our colleagues from? The next area generally associated with protective footwear is to protect against items dropped onto the foot. This has been long been the traditional role of safety footwear in the workplace and the birth place of the steel toe capped boot!

During my introduction I mentioned that the safety footwear industry has now moved significantly on from the old image of a large cumbersome boot with a large toe cap which in most cases was uncomfortable to wear but did the job.

Now there is a wide variety of safety footwear ranging from shoes, training shoes and boots which can be ankle height to chest height in the case of waders, through to clogs and footwear designed to protect against specific hazards such as foundry boots and chain saw boots and not forgetting the humble Wellington boot. There’s also a wide choice of styles and types and there is an equally wide range of materials used in the make up of the footwear. This ranges from traditional leather though to material that is vegan friendly!

Along with the move to safety footwear which is more customer friendly the testing standards have also become more demanding and have to meet international standards. This is relevant to companies who are multi-national as it means the standards of safety footwear should be common in all areas the organisation works in.

Currently the safety features of footwear are tested according to a set of European Standards which have originated from an ISO standard, and have now been written into EN ISO 20344:2004. To help you find which standard is relevant to your particular situation I have listed the subjects which are covered in the British Standard BS EN ISO 20344:2004: Protective footwear are:

• Footwear

• Protective clothing

• Occupational safety

• Performance testing

• Mechanical testing

• Thermal testing

• Electrical testing

• Water-resistance tests

• Water-absorption tests

• Oil-resistance tests

There are a further three performance specifications that support the above which cover safety footwear, protective footwear and occupational footwear. These are again are also based on ISO and European Standards and have been incorporated into the following British standards

• BS EN ISO 20345:2004: for safety footwear and covers: footwear – shoes – boots – protective footwear – protective clothing – occupational safety

• BS EN ISO 20346:2004: for protective footwear and covers: protective footwear – protective clothing – footwear – occupational safety – classification systems – performance – design – size – dimensions – mechanical properties of materials – strength of materials – impact strength – electrical properties of materials.

• BS EN ISO 20347:2004: for occupational footwear and covers: protective footwear – protective clothing – footwear – occupational safety – classification systems – performance – design – size – dimensions – mechanical properties of materials – strength of materials – impact strength – electrical properties of materials. Use these standards to establish the type of footwear needed to deal with the hazards we have identified. In summary those hazards could be

• Objects falling on and crushing the foot and toes

• Treading on pointed or sharp objects,

• Slips and trips – remembering trips are probably the hazard which are universal across all industry sectors.

• Working in cold or hot conditions • Electrical hazards

• Working in potentially explosive atmospheres, anti-static

• Working with and handling hazardous chemicals

• Wet work, using water sprays when cleaning

As we have seen the choice of safety footwear is large and the help of manufacturers in choosing the correct solution to your situation is an important consideration. As well as supplying the safety footwear, employers have a responsibility to ensure it is maintained and replaced when it no longer provides the level of protection it was intended for.

This will included the depth of grip on the sole if it has been primarily provided to protect against slipping. The integrity of the footwear must also be checked if it has been provided to protect against falling objects, chemical ingress or thermal comfort.

A final point to consider is that some colleagues spend a lot of their working day on their feet so the comfort of the safety footwear employers provide can be enhanced by providing good advice on how to lace them correctly and the type of stocking or socks that should be worn in conjunction with the footwear. Consider suitable innersoles which can help in providing part of an ergonomic solution to reduce some of the musculoskeletal issues standing for long periods can produce.


Personal protective equipment at work (second edition) – Personal protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 (as Amended) – Guidance on regulations, HSE publication l25 – ISBN 0-7176- 6139-3

Health and Safety Laboratory – report number HSL/2207/33 – Further slip resistance testing of footwear for use at work.

BS EN ISO 20344:2004: Personal protective equipment – Test methods for footwear

BS EN ISO 20345:2004 – Personal protective equipment – Safety footwear

BS EN ISO 20346:2004 – Personal protective equipment – Protective footwear

BS EN ISO 20347:2004 – Personal protective equipment – Occupational footwear

BS EN ISO 13287:2007 – Personal Protective equipment – Footwear – Test methods for slip resistance


Steve Savage MBE, is a chartered member of IOSH (CMIOSH) and is also the chair of the Midland Branch of IOSH. He is a regional safety officer for a large facilities management company which works throughout the UK and Northern Ireland.

Published: 10th Nov 2009 in Health and Safety Middle East