Each generation is inspired to develop and market new approaches to old problems. We do tend to assume, however, that because it is ‘new’ it must automatically be better than the old, ‘classical’ process.
When it comes to foot protection for industrial workers, however, the adage that the tried and trusted methods are still good is certainly still popular. One of the reasons why we have had the traditional steel toe cap protecting our feet for so many generations with little change is due in part to the mentality of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”.
The concept of protecting our feet, and in particular our toes, is nothing new. In medieval times, Knights fought and jousted clad head to toe in metal plates that were exquisitely overlaid and hinged in a manner that afforded some flexibility of the protective covering. Did this concept come from nature and the way an armadillo is able to carry and flex its armour, or perhaps the way a turtle can get away from it all by retreating into its shell? What we do know is that it worked.
We can also find throughout history and differing cultures that some form of foot protection was afforded to warriors, be it made of reeds, cushioned textiles, woven leather, wood or metal.
History is weak on the true founding of products that we would call industrial safety footwear. I have read articles claiming that it was a German invention after World War Two, indicating that safety footwear is based on the creation of the first hand-wrought moulded steel toe cap. If we are to limit ourselves to just the concept of steel toe caps, however, this would not be fair to all the other options that were around before and after this initial 1940s dating. We well know that the industrial footwear category evolved from hand-welted military footwear design origins. This was first used out of necessity, as shoes were expensive and were therefore used for multiple activities.
In the early 1800s Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanising process that enabled footwear to be assembled as a layering built up procedure. The idea of an armadillo like metal overlaid plating inserted between layers of rubber midsole sheeting gave rise to the anti foot bottom penetration feature we now know today, which is also available in leather construction versions.
We know that the invention of the Goodyear Welted Construction in the 1870s by Charles Goodyear Jnr afforded mass leather shoe making production to occur and was a rigid enough footwear shell to withstand the travails of rugged work.
Rural America in the 19th century was an agrarian economy and also home to an ingenious group of tinkerers. Ex-military civil war footwear was patched and added onto by rural cobblers to build protection against adversity while working outdoors in very rugged conditions. It was more than just toe protection, as the USA was also full of other nasty local critters such as alligators and snakes.
Extra patches of hard thick (mouldable when wet) vegetable tanned leather became interesting safety features for jobs that used sharp instruments or were around heavy machinery parts.
It is most possible that the added toe cap of thick leather was the real origin of the original safety toe at the turn of the 1900s, and it’s likely that they looked the same as the old football boots that were worn pre 1950s.
To try to give ownership of invention for safety footwear to either Europe or North America is not an argument worth pursuing, as both sides of the Atlantic were doing their own thing in the 19th century and it is perfectly logical to assume that both sides were pursuing the same end results through experiencing the same challenges.
What is factual is that World War One encouraged serious research into suitable protective footwear for key forces on both sides, one of which was the use of the pegged soling attachment within ammunition areas. By the World War Two there were forms of stamped steel toe caps on both sides of the combatants, albeit in limited shapes and quantities because of the then high production costs.
We should never forget that the basic principles of footwear, no matter the category, should be based on maximising function and comfort. This is important to highlight given that today’s celebrity obsessed society is so imbued with status and style and not content.
The function of industrial safety footwear is obviously to protect the foot from industrial injury for which those accidents could run the gamut from spills, sprains, blasts and fire, to penetration or crushing.
Toe protection is the most popular functional need mentioned in the industrial footwear business, because a damaged metatarsal, tarsal or phalangeal area can lead to amputation, and without our toes to spread out and use for grip, forward movement and balance, we could be rendered immobile.
Industrial foot protection as a category encompasses more than the toes and many manufacturers offer below the knee product selections, while the majority consider over the ankle as their main audience.
To protect the upper part of the foot from heavy falling objects the use of an instep padded metal metatarsal overlay serves the safety function, but it is a very cumbersome attachment and not designed for fast mobility.
For the toes, the metal toe cap has been the standard bearer and is now broadly available as a temporary strap on, as an external visible and permanent attachment or, more popularly today, sandwiched between the upper and lining of the article.
For the sole bottom, the midsole can accommodate various forms of non-penetrable material to protect against penetration of sharp objects into the foot. For some reason, we tend to worry less about the heel area of the foot from a protective need than the toe area. I make the assumption that this is due to the heel bone (the calcaneum) being a pretty solid large mass and most shoes having some form of fairly resistant heel counter support wrapped around the Achilles tendon area.
Through two major world wars and the Korean War, armies marched in heavy standard issue welted footwear and industrial footwear of the period, which followed the same basic format with or without steel toe caps. It was a period when one model basically fitted all and they were heavy and quite inflexible. The origins of supplying safety footwear rested more with governmental policing of factory health and safety practices than a respect for the value of a well functioning operative. It took the Vietnam War to make American production aware of the value of protecting workers. The loss of military infantry life in hostile jungle conditions was first based upon defining the best and fastest ways of getting across open terrain while under attack. Various biomechanical research funding in leading American Universities evolved a working relationship with American military and industrial boot makers to produce job fitted and functionally designed footwear to specific conditions of this war. Work boots after the war began to adapt to some of the lessons learnt through this research.
For more than 75 years, die stamped metal toe caps had been the material of choice for industrial toe protection and the established mandate of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” led to many years where very little was done to find alternatives. Military research, however, had shown that footwear that was light and flexible had a remarkable improvement on the performance of soldiers in combat, and testing showed that the same story applied to industrial workers. The problem was that metal such as steel was heavy in weight and was mainly responsible for the overall heaviness of the footwear product, and when used in lighter shoes tended to be a top heavy toe tripping exercise.
For decades toe cap suppliers and boot makers experimented with possible alternatives from lighter metals like Aluminium to fibreglass resins. The cost factor of the new materials made it a tough adoption process and for years the status quo was followed, but then as had happened in the past it took a new form of war to advance the necessity to adopt alternatives to the classic steel toe caps.
That war was the era of terrorist guerrilla action, a period when the enemy could be among us if not working by our side. The impact of the World Trade Centre devastation, the Shoe Bomber and many localised bomb threats brought about a serious re-examination of how industry dealt with basic safety precautions such as checking footwear and the time consuming delays for workers that such an examination required. Timing for change is also a question of circumstances. At the same time as we were experiencing a need to make industrial safety footwear that could pass a security check, we were also finding that our manufacturing industrial base in the West was changing in occupation and demographic scenarios.
Many of our traditional heavy and dangerous industries were moving offshore, our major industries like car production and food processing were becoming computer driven, and much of the danger associated with such activities was now handled by robots. Even mining was evolving to include instances of surface machinery control. As a result many of the old safety footwear needs were, if not becoming redundant, at least changing, necessitating another lighter pair of workboots when not actually ‘on site’.
Style versus substance
From these scenarios evolved a demand for more stylish, lighter safety footwear and the new composite and carbon fibre toe caps that appealed to a younger, not necessarily better educated, industrial employee.
I have heard the arguments from such employees: they want more ‘funky’ footwear; they want to use the same shoes for social activities on the way home from work; the old work boots have a social stigma as being the boots that these kids saw their fathers wearing; and above all, that they were hard to wear when driving the latest muscle car that these skilled equipment operatives could now afford.
My own personal observation with regard to this athleticisation of safety work boots and shoes questions whether we are now, as an industry, getting carried away with what is happening in the performance athletic shoe industry, its impact on the youth market and where the role of function is dissipating in the name of fashion, external appeal and celebrity endorsements. I make this bold statement because I believe this industry needs to look hard at itself and its functional role, and not be as heavily influenced by the current fast buck athletic shoe street sales.
Safety footwear needs are not athletic. There is a reason why the 150-year-old GYW construction is still favoured by many makers: it provides a solid structural base to resist toe impact events. I acknowledge that major steps have been made in flanged edge bases to the design of steel toe caps that also help protect the toes from being crushed, but at the same time as these developments we as an industry have also gone ahead with many midsole and sole compounds that do not have the resistance power of the classic work boot leather or one piece rubber sole unit.
As an industry, where should we go in our development strategies? The world of safety footwear needs is also changing. The activities of industry are becoming more varied and more complex. In the West we still continue working as loggers, surface scrapers and miners underground, even when the refining of such materials are exported to areas where safety standards may not be as rigid as in our countries. These industries will still need the staple safety footwear we have known for decades. The steel toe cap will still be in demand for such activities. Our manufacturing base has shrunk and our products have had to be updated to be competitive on a global scene. Today’s western industries are now in the main quite sophisticated in their set ups and the types of safety products they need. Their production is today more in need of lighter, more flexible footwear safety and as a result I suggest, even when using athletic shoes as our inspirational source, we should be applying more cross trainer product analysis rather than skateboard or running shoe feature trends. To this writer it appears the athletic industry is moving away from the busy ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach to products and returning to less is more, functional utility to influence their style. In tomorrow’s products we will see much more creative inspiration coming from those of retro and heritage products.
Talking of past products from history, could it be that the medieval concept of wooden pattens to protect the soft unstructured slip lasted shoes of yesteryear have a message for us for the future of industrial safety footwear? I see the future of safety footwear as being one of exoskeletal protection. For decades, foot protection was afforded in many production units by strap on external metallic coverings. Some companies still produce such products, but they have all been prone to being bulky, cumbersome in closure, and heavy and hard to move in. The vision I see, and I’m sure many industrial designers have had the same thoughts, is a future industrial safety shoe with the concept of a basic super customised comfortable inner covering and exoskeletal options of safety protection feature combinations that are customised for specific industrial needs. By divorcing the inner bootie from having to incorporate the heavy armorial needs of safety, we are able to use constructions like Strobel, which lighten the weight factor and are able to contain anatomically correct interior support. On the exoskeletal side, the options for safety needs will be encased in soft and lightweight but durable moulded units and have sole traction designed for very specific surfaces or working conditions. This is an ideal world for carbon fibre components and a choice of material and technical construction to be used. The inner shell foot covering can be reduced in cost while the exoskeleton’s intricate combinations will need some healthy financial investment in precision moulding. I see such exoskeletal kits as being sold in somewhat the same way as today’s so called performance foot bed insoles are being hyped. In other words, as accessories, where a knowledge based operative can custom select their occupational needs.
The very concept of steel toe cap safety footwear has been so indigenous to our safety footwear applications that any other options tend to just pass quickly through conversations I have had concerning where safety footwear is going. We still seemed more obsessed with where the styling is going than the actual protective values afforded by such products. As a shoe historian, when I look back on what has happened to safety footwear I see much more ingenuity and actual research and development in the so called rubber side of the business than I do in the leather part. The Funk Process of Doc Martens in the late 1950s was probably the most aggressive attempt to reposition industrial and safety footwear in a newer, lighter, more flexible role. While this was built on a genuine Goodyear welt construction it was denied the right to use the term in the USA because of American ignorance, even though the construction was an American invention. In fact it was only last year that their safety footwear industry officially acknowledged in a booklet that a genuine GYW could have a stitched welt to runner midsole construction and the sole could be cemented to that runner. More recently direct injection PU midsoles with strobel lasting have appeared and proven popular when matched with outdoor and athletic upper styling, but again I have sat through many debates as to the structural strength properties of supporting a steel toe cap in such products. From my observations, the move in this industry towards new microfibre upper materials and the opportunities for creating dimensional cavity embossing into such materials makes the opportunity for slimmer or sleeker looking metal toe shapes more promising. The same can be said for various forms of bulletproof woven textiles now used for upper side panels and insole penetration protection. In the past alternatives to steel toe caps tended to be thicker in substance and affected fit somewhat, but as I have tried to explain, the changes in our manufacturing systems and types of products may well make the newer lighter space age materials just as suitable for todays new industry needs and it really is a question of our safety standards being adjusted accordingly.
Published: 11th Nov 2015 in Health and Safety International