Putting your best foot(wear) forward

Just about the only time we think about our feet is when they let us know they’re unhappy. Our feet support us through most of our waking hours, but until they feel sore or painful, we don’t give them much of our attention.

We should pay attention to them, though, especially in the workplace. That’s because the U.S. Department of Labor has said that nearly 10 percent of America’s 12 million work-related injuries involve the feet or ankles. Foot and ankle injuries typically involve an average of 10 days of lost work and add up to hundreds of millions in workers’ compensation and production losses annually.

With the high incidence of injuries and the associated costs, it’s surprising that that the National Safety Council reports that just one in four foot injury victims was wearing safety shoes or boots. Given the advances in and availability of safety footwear, that’s a huge number of easily preventable injuries and lost productivity (not to mention potential fines).

Job-related foot injuries generally fall into one of two categories. One involves injuries such as crushed feet, broken bones, and lost toes; punctures from nails and staples, scrap metal, and other sharp objects; and cuts and lacerations. The other category is related to slips, trips, and falls, which can cause ankle and foot sprains and fractures, as well as injury to other parts of the body.

Legal protections

OSHA rules call for the use of protective footwear in numerous workplace situations, particularly when the work being performed includes the risk of foot injuries caused by rolling or falling objects, electrical hazards, or objects piercing footwear. Other situations in which safety footwear may be needed include being around molten materials, corrosive or poisonous items, hot and/or slippery surfaces, and situations in which static electricity might trigger explosions. Safety programs requiring the use of personal protective equipment should cover footwear needs, proper fit, and training about how to properly protect the feet and ankles.

Performance requirements for safety footwear are established and monitored by ASTM International. Protective footwear will include a label identifying how it complies with ASTM’s specific standards. As an example, the label indicates whether a pair of safety boots provides protection from electrical hazards, whether it contains dielectric insulation, and if it dissipates static electricity. It will also describe the puncture resistance and how much of an impact it protects the wearer from. Supervisors should be familiar with how to read ASTM standards and should be aware of which standards are appropriate for the task and environment.

Match footwear to needs

Simply requiring workers to wear “safety shoes” is inadequate direction. There is a wide range of protective footwear available, and the specific choice depends upon the work environment and the nature of the hazards the workers will encounter. For example, shoes made of leather are ideal in many environments, but if workers are in environments that will be wet, or if they’re performing tasks around oils and greases or chemicals, they should probably wear neoprene boots or footwear made of polyvinyl chloride.

If workers are performing tasks in which they’re exposed to crushing hazards such as falling objects that can cause metatarsal injuries, steel-toed boots are the preferred choice. If there’s an enhanced risk of toe injury, but not enough to warrant steel toes, a composite toe may provide a more affordable and comfortable choice.

The material used in the sole is also important, because the choice will affect the traction the shoe or boot provides, while also determining the resistance to potential punctures. Leather soles offer adequate traction on wood floors, but may not be as safe on slick surfaces such as tile. Slippery settings may call for a softer sole or one designed with cleats. Thick rubber soles serve as insulation, reducing the potential for electrocution if a worker’s body inadvertently completes a circuit. Boots for electricians and those working around electrical equipment may also offer protection against arc flash and static electricity. Shoes and boots for workplaces in which punctures are possible may incorporate a sole plate made of metal or similar material.

Comfort is another important consideration. Workers who will be performing tasks in wet environments or outside may choose water-resistant construction to keep their feet dry, which can also reduce the potential for infection. Proper fit and comfort features will provide the support and protection workers need while minimizing the potential for soreness and fatigue.

Safety shoes should be kept clean and inspected frequently to ensure they continue to provide the proper level of protection. If surfaces are wearing out, or if protective elements such as metal plates become loose, they should be replaced immediately.

Engineering foot safety

While the right choice of footwear is a major contribution to safety, how the workplace is designed and how tasks are performed can also have a profound effect on preventing injuries and strains to feet and ankles. For example, workstations for standing work should be adjustable, so they can be placed at a comfortable level for workers of different heights. Adding a footrest or rail makes it possible for workers to shift their feet and the weight they bear throughout the workday. And even if work is primarily performed in a standing position, the worker should be given a stool or other opportunities to sit down periodically to reduce strain and fatigue.

Floor materials also play a key role in comfort or safety. Hard floors such as concrete offer little resiliency, creating discomfort over time. Using an anti-fatigue mat is one way to reduce fatigue, as long as the mat doesn’t create a tripping hazard. Resilient flooring materials such as rubber, carpeting, and wood may also be beneficial. Non-slip surfaces or mats can reduce the potential for slips and falls.

Redesigning the nature of tasks can also contribute to foot safety. If workers spend their entire shift standing in one position, they’re more likely to report sore and uncomfortable feet. Designing workstations to allow changes in position and posture may reduce fatigue, as will rotating workers to different tasks.

The cost of proper footwear or adjusting workstations may seem high, but it’s actually small when compared to the medical bills and lost productivity associated with a single workplace foot or ankle injury. Thinking about feet for a change will result in safer, more comfortable, and happier workers.

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