Stepping into safety

Key considerations for protective footwear

The author does not claim to be a safety footwear specialist, but utilises her experience as a safety professional to understand the challenges and interprets legal requirements and best practice. This article will review the requirement to ensure the suitable selection of safety footwear.

A little over five years ago, my friends and I decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Well, with hindsight I can say with all honestly it was more of a trek than a climb, but nevertheless a very challenging trek. Besides fitness level and mental preparation there were a lot of other considerations, albeit mainly equipment preparation: the right clothing, sleeping bag, wet wipes and trekking shoes, although in this case the trekking shoes were not ‘work equipment’ they were part of my personal protective equipment. They were there to serve several purposes; such as to protect me from slipping in wet and icy conditions, keep my feet dry and warm, protect my feet from large stones and keep my feet and toes from blisters and discomfort due to long hours of walking. When going shopping for them I discovered that there is a vast selection of different types of trekking shoes at different price ranges. Some had ankle protection, others did not; some were made for snow; others for woodlands. The choice was vast and at some points I did feel confused. Doing research and seeking advice from those who had previously climbed the mountain helped enormously in clearing my head and making the decision.

Similarly, if we look at personal protective footwear (safety footwear) used for work we will find an even bigger variety; different manufacturers, different purposes, some compliant with standards and others not.

All safety footwear across Europe must comply with minimum safety standards set out by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The current standard for safety footwear across Europe is EN ISO 20345:2011. Under this standard, all safety footwear must now have toe protection against a 200 joule impact. Any product certified under any previous version of the standard (2004; 2007) was required to be recertified.

The subject of safety footwear has been widely written about and discussed and I am sure that we all know about safety footwear, but we still get it wrong, so let us refresh our memory on the importance of safety footwear and how best to maximise its use.

“under EN ISO 20345:2011 all safety footwear must now have toe protection against a 200 joule impact”

Safety footwear is designed to protect feet against a wide variety of injuries. Impact, compression, and puncture are the most common types of foot injury. If foot protection is required, set up a complete foot safety protection programme. Unfortunately, very few companies have actually implemented a foot safety programme, or any structured process that involves selection, fit testing, training, maintenance and care of safety footwear.

Foot safety programme

Whether a company needs ten pairs of safety footwear or hundreds of them, it needs to have a structured approach that involves selection, fit testing, training, maintenance and inspection of safety footwear.

The requirements for a structured approach in the selection and management of PPE are identified in different standards, national and local legislation. In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, the requirements are specified in OSHAD SF – CoP 2.0 Personal Protective Equipment.

While it is accepted that good design is important in ensuring that employees wear the PPE provided to them, nothing is more singularly important than the correct selection of PPE. The topic of correct selection of PPE and preparation of PPE specification was previously discussed in an article in the October 2017 issue of HSME.

Selecting the right safety footwear depends on many factors, not the least of which include the job and its hazards, which exist in every workplace in many different forms. As safety professionals we all know that the best way to protect employees is to control these hazards at the source using engineering, work practice, administrative, and collective controls. When these controls do not provide sufficient protection, suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) must be used. Safety footwear is a control measure, hence asking the question “what am I trying to protect my workers from?” Getting the answer to this question is a fundamental part of this first step. Safety footwear is developed for a specific end user, whether that person is an electrician or a carpenter. Selecting safety footwear should be dependent on the hazards and the potential injuries to the feet (impact, compression, puncture, etc.) and/or ankles (fractures, twisting, etc.). This should make choosing the proper safety footwear as easy as breaking down what is most important to keep safe and comfortable on the job. The following are a few points to consider.

Does your work require safety toe protection?

There are a number of safety toe options that protect the toes including steel, alloy, and non-metallic toes.

Steel toes were traditionally used as the ultimate protection from falling objects or puncture to the foot. Steel toe protection is still one of the most popular and trusted forms of certified footwear safety.

Alloy toes are much lighter than steel toes and just as strong, if not stronger. Any reduction in the weight of the shoe/ boot could lead to a reduction in foot fatigue. This might be a selection criterion that is important if your workers are expected to work long hours.

Workers have started using non-metallic toe protection because it can feel lighter and more comfortable. Additionally, the non-metallic toe is not electrically conductive, and the resistance to the transmission of heat or cold can make a big difference on the job site.

Does the job require static dissipative footwear protection?

Safety footwear can be designed to reduce the build-up of excess static electricity by transferring excess static electricity from the body to the ground.

Does the job require oil and/or slip-resistant footwear?

Oil-resistant footwear is specially designed to perform in work environments where oil is a factor. These outsoles will resist the swelling and deteriorating effects of various types of oils.

Slip-resistant work boots can be developed to grip to dry and wet surfaces. Slip-resistant footwear can be tested to ASTM standards to ensure it meets this safety need.

Does the job require working in a variety of conditions?

A wedge outsole has low lugs that are great for not trapping mud or debris in the outsole. This outsole is particularly good when working in these conditions or doing a job, such as a framing or drywalling, that frequently involves work outside and in, without tracking debris inside.

Working with any machinery or shovels requires a right-angle heel and aggressive lugs for traction and durability.

Does the job require long hours in warm climates and temperatures?

Safety footwear can be extremely comfortable with new, breathable technologies. For warmer climates indoors and outside, breathable materials can wick away moisture and keep feet dryer and more comfortable. Breathable materials such as Coolmax and DXTVent are performance technologies developed to create cooler footwear in warm conditions. This is in particular important in the Middle East, where the outside temperature can reach above 50 degrees Celsius during the summer months. Remember, you might need to provide your workers with performance socks that will wick away moisture. General socks are not sufficient and can create blisters. It’s important to note that different people within an organisation might require different foot protection, depending on the jobs they carry out.

Commercial considerations

Now that you know what type of safety footwear you require within your organisation, you need to identify the different manufacturers and suppliers. Get your procurement team involved and keep them informed. Cost matters, so do shop around, but do not make the cost the main selection criteria. One thing I was certain about when selecting my trekking shoes was not to save or scrimp on this item. If my feet were cold with blisters and tired it would have made the whole climb extremely uncomfortable.

In Europe, the US and in many other countries around the world, there are a growing number of legal obligations requiring retailers to only place safe products on the market. However, this is not the case everywhere else. Be extremely vigilant of where you procure your safety footwear from. There is a reason why some products are on the lower scale of the price (you do get what you pay for) but likewise, the most expensive does not mean the best.

What you need is safety footwear that protects your workers from the hazards you have identified, as well as ensuring comfort to reduce foot fatigue. The type of material used will affect flexibility, comfort, waterproofing, maintenance and care requirements.

When comparing different commercial proposals, look at the smaller details; some safety boots have extra cushioning to support for many hours on the job, and these models reduce foot fatigue; does the cheaper option have that? Some suppliers provide fit testing and samples for trying the footwear while others don’t. As well as different footwear for different jobs, give people a choice; select three different types within your price range that employees can choose from.

Fit testing

Fit is vitally important to the performance of any safety footwear. When buying safety footwear for yourself, speak with a trained footwear technician at a retail store that can make sure the length and width of the boot is right. This is understandably more difficult if you are procuring footwear for hundreds of employees. If individual fit testing with a professional technician is not possible then make sure to buy footwear (and adequate performance socks) in different sizes. Give workers a chance to try the footwear and see if it is comfortable. Do not just go by the size the worker wears in their normal day to day shoes. Without the proper fit, feet will easily get fatigued and blisters may be more likely.

I clearly remember watching a worker walking on a construction site with safety shoes that looked several sizes bigger than his size. Besides being uncomfortable, the worker had to drag his feet which obviously required more effort than usual and could have easily become a tripping hazard themselves. Moreover, if the shoes had steel toe/sole protection, their location (the toes that is) would have been outside the area requiring protection. This scenario, however, is not actually a fit testing issue and is clearly lack of management and consideration for worker welfare.

Maintenance and care

Safety footwear needs to be properly cared for to ensure it lasts many months on the job. For example, if workboots are made of leather, depending on the conditions of the job and how much they are worn, they will require more frequent cleaning. The worst thing a boot can have is cracking leather that compromises the safety of the boot. The ideal care is to properly moisturise the leather with cleaning and leather boot care moisturising products.

For those working in cement and chemically hazardous conditions, rubber boots can be required; they are quite easy to clean because they contain no seams. Rubber conditioner can be used to rejuvenate the boot and lengthen its life.

Instructions and information on how to maintain and care for safety footwear should be provided to employees. Employees should know how best to maximise the potential of the footwear. In bigger companies it might be advisable to set up a regular inspection and maintenance programme where employees, on a particular day, are required to inspect, clean and care for their safety footwear. Remember, good maintenance and care should result in longer use of the footwear and in turn a saving for the company.


In summary, I feel certain that nothing in this article about safety footwear is new to most readers. It is a subject we know a lot about, but it is in its management that we sometimes go wrong. Remember, no one plans to get injured and no one wants work while their feet are in pain and discomfort. I can certainly say that my research on trekking shoes paid off well. While some trekkers complained of pain and blisters, my feet were happy, which made reaching the summit that bit easier.

If we all know so much about this topic, then why is it that procurement teams constantly buy one type of safety footwear for all workers, and generally that one option happens to also be the cheapest? Why do employers fail to provide sufficient information and instruction on how to care for and maintain safety footwear? Why do I constantly see workers wearing safety boots worn incorrectly (i.e. unfastened and with the backs trodden down)?

If we all know so much about PPE let us change the workplace culture.


Reilly Mark, Selecting Proper Footwear, Articles/2007/10/Selecting-Proper- Safety-Footwear.aspx (accesses 28 March 2018)

OSHAD-SF – COP 2.0 - Personal Protective Equipment, Version 3, 2016

Kenyon, Mark. The Last Resort: Understanding Industrial Protective Footwear. HSME, October 2017