Barry Holt investigates cultural divides in the use of safety footwear and how humour might just be the key to workers understanding the importance of safety.
A few years ago I was a member of the adjudication panel for the film and multimedia festival at the World Safety Congress in Orlando, Florida. We had to review a wide range of films and DVDs from a surprisingly diverse range of countries, including several from the Middle East and Africa.
One of these related to the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and was produced in Burkina Faso, where PPE compliance was a major problem. The film demonstrated the effect of cultural differences between developed and undeveloped countries, showing barefoot workers on construction sites, with one worker stepping on a scaffold board through which a nail was protruding. One of the key messages was that there are situations where it does not suffice simply to issue safety footwear and instruct workers to wear it. We need to educate workers in the reasons to protect themselves.
This is a particular problem in countries where PPE is still seen as the instinctive reaction to a need for protection. In countries with a more highly developed concept of health and safety management, we now habitually consider a hierarchy of controls when selecting preventative measures. This means that we look initially at measures that will eliminate or reduce the risk through engineering controls.
The hierarchy of controls usually covers, in order of priority:
• Replacement with a safer option
• Reduction at source
In other words, the use of PPE should be seen as a final or temporary option, only to be used until a more robust control measure can be instituted. Even in developed countries, however, there are still many organisations for whom this is seen as too much trouble or too costly.
So why do we rank PPE, including footwear, as being the last line of defence? One reason is the way that some workers are happy to misuse or abuse the controls. One example reported to me concerned employees involved in the removal of asbestos. On checking the wearing of dust respirators, it was found that one employee had made a hole in the front – just the right size for a cigarette to fit – and he was happily smoking and risking inhaling the asbestos fibres. As it was a mandatory control measure one can only assume that the risk had not been effectively communicated to the worker.
Although this was a situation which was difficult to understand, given the high profile attached to asbestos risk it is shocking that the message does not appear to be sinking in. We see the same situation with regard to footwear.
Shoes are shoes. They are all the same really, aren’t they?
As safety professionals, we all know that we need to provide situation specific solutions. If we do not select the correct footwear for a specific risk, even if the employees actually do wear it, there is a high likelihood that they will not be protected against the identified hazard. Conversely, if workers are made to wear safety footwear in environments with no perceived risk then they may fail to perceive the severity of the situation. This puts the onus on employers to not only identify whether there is a risk of a foot injury, but to assess the nature of the risk and from what source it arises.
Why not comply?
1. The principal reason is normally that safety footwear is perceived as being uncomfortable. While this may be true for some of the older styles of footwear, particularly those which protect against impact and have steel toecaps, manufacturers are increasingly introducing models that give the same degree of protection but with a lower weight.
2. Particularly among younger and more style conscious workers, looking ‘cool’ is a major factor. On one occasion when I was carrying out a health and safety audit on a foundry in Germany, I found one of the furnace workers wearing what appeared to be a pair of trainers. When challenged, he did some quick thinking and explained that they were actually safety shoes designed as trainers. When asked to point them out in the catalogue he had to confess. This was a plausible lie, however, as although they are not suitable for all risks, most safety equipment manufacturers do have models which resemble trainers.
Both of these factors can be of particular relevance to female employees. Comfort is also more of an issue in regions such as the Middle East and Africa, where climate can exaggerate the discomfort. Increased temperature and humidity can significantly increase the discomfort if the problem is not identified and addressed.
In addition, workers in hot and humid climates are probably used to wearing either no footwear, as in the Burkina Faso film, or open toed sandals.
If we are to ensure that workers comply with the legal and company based standards for the use of safety footwear we need to overcome these concerns, which will mean an education programme to change people’s perceptions.
There are several key factors which an employer must take into account when introducing the workforce to the use of safety footwear. If these are considered at the selection stage then we can hopefully change workers’ perceptions.
Identifying sources of risk
Safety footwear is needed to protect workers against a wide range of hazards. To ensure that we choose the correct type of footwear it is essential to understand the nature of the specific threat, as outlined below.
Slips, trips and falls
These are the most common cause of accident in any country. Do we know what hazard is likely to cause these incidents? We need to, as this will determine the type of sole required, which will in turn affect the weight and comfort of the shoe or boot.
In some cases employees may require footwear to provide insulation from electricity, whereas in situations where static electricity is the hazard it may be necessary to provide conductive footwear to prevent the buildup of a charge on the workers themselves. This in turn can cause a discharge that can ignite any flammable vapours present. Similarly, sensitive electronic equipment can be damaged by such a charge.
Where antistatic footwear is provided there is a need for this to be checked periodically to ensure that the conductivity has not been reduced by a buildup of deposits on the soles of the shoes.
In some workplaces this can produce another barrier, as the programmes for testing may not have been accepted by the employees and the need for regular cleaning may be viewed as an inconvenience.
In many of the Middle Eastern countries one of the biggest industries is the petroleum sector and its related chemical manufacturers. Here, clearly the issue of chemical resistance is of major importance, but in addition there is also risk of exposure to flammable atmospheres. Footwear must be selected bearing in mind the risks of splashes, slips, trips and falls, as well as the need for antistatic soles.
This is the risk most commonly associated with safety footwear and is of particular importance in industries such as construction and manufacturing. This in turn is the type of footwear which, because of its construction, causes the most resistance. The steel toecaps add to the weight of the shoe and can make the shoe feel cramped when in use. With the rapid expansion of construction in the Middle East, it is essential that all workers are made aware of the importance of wearing the correct footwear on site.
Communication and education
Having identified the need for safety footwear we should select the most appropriate type, taking into account a risk assessment. This is important because one of the most common problems to be overcome in gaining acceptance is whether or not workers are required to wear the footwear at all times.
In many countries it is only a requirement to wear safety footwear when involved in an activity where a risk assessment has identified it as a necessary control measure; however, some organisations make safety footwear compulsory for everyone – regardless of whether or not they are in an area where there is a risk of foot injury.
Someone who normally works in an office environment at a computer terminal would be expected to wear safety footwear, simply because the main activity of the company is construction. One argument to support this is that, should an occasion call for someone who does not usually require safety footwear in their day to day work to enter an area with identified risks, they are less likely to forget to wear the shoes if PPE is mandatory for all.
In either case, it is important that the worker understands the reasons behind the use of footwear, rather than being expected simply to obey instructions. Too often the immediate response to employees who do not comply with the rules is to resort to disciplinary procedures. This, however, is an unsatisfactory stopgap measure for an issue which requires education and a change in perception.
One way in which this understanding can be made easier is by involving the workers at all stages:
1. Carrying out assessments – This will help them to understand the source, any potential effects of the risks and the importance of the controls.
2. Selecting the appropriate footwear – Employee involvement is an important motivator for behavioural change. Selecting a range of suitable footwear to be offered to workers will give them a feeling of empowerment, which will make it less likely that they will refuse to comply.
3. The condition of footwear should be monitored.
4. The education process can be assisted by conducting toolbox talks within your circle of colleagues.
At a more fundamental level, behaviour in the workplace is influenced by the culture which exists not only at the workplace level, but also within the local society. As health and safety professionals, we believe that the motivators for good health and safety management are:
• Legal – Because the law says we should do it and failure to comply may lead to sanctions
• Moral – Employers have a duty of care to their workers to protect them from injury and harm
• Financial – There are potential financial consequences for the employer should an employee be injured. These can include compensation and liability claims, fines, loss of production as a result of loss of labour or enforcement action, and the costs of investigations, replacement labour and corrective action
Most financial costs are not covered by insurance and in some countries such as the UK, studies have shown that the cost of these uninsured elements can be more than eight times as great as the insurance claim; however, herein lies a problem with some developing countries. In some parts of the world, lives, or at least injuries, are seen as cheap.
When working in one former Soviet bloc country, I witnessed a maintenance worker struggling into work – obviously suffering serious discomfort in his knee. He claimed that he had fallen when using a ladder on the night shift. Upon investigation, it was revealed that he had indeed fallen as a result of misusing a ladder and had fractured both his kneecaps. The organisational culture was such that he was afraid of being dismissed for incorrect behaviour.
In other countries, particularly in South East Asia, there is a culture of obeying the rules. If wearing safety footwear is made a rule, workers will normally comply; however, this should not be relied upon.
In the Middle East, for example, where a high proportion of workers are immigrants who often work for major overseas multinationals with well developed health and safety management systems, these workers tend to follow the rules – whether they understand them or not. In other countries such as the UK and US, they too have compliance problems as workers will tend to question rules which they see as arbitrarily imposed.
As I hope to have demonstrated, the problems with the use of safety footwear do not arise purely as a result of workers’ ignorance. If we are to prevent injuries to employees’ feet we need to improve their understanding of both the risks and the potential consequences, as well as the benefits of compliance. As with many aspects of occupation safety and health, this will rely on education and improved communication in order to establish a common understanding about the risk and the ways in which it should be controlled.
When addressing the issue of communication, we must look at the elements of the problem and how it should be presented, but we also need to consider the potential audience and the culture in which they are working. In the case of the video from Burkina Faso, its purely visual style – employing humour – was the most effective medium of communication, and of the 70 submissions it was awarded second prize.
Published: 2nd May 2013 in Health and Safety Middle East