Step in right direction
04 December 2019
Comfort and protection are two key benefits of having the right safety footwear. Here, Stuart Thorne explores the many other advantages.
SAFETY FOOTWEAR fulfils a huge variety of extremely important roles, and its selection needs to take into account a whole range of factors such as slip resistance, all-day comfort, ergonomics, durability, stability, breathability and style and any other safety features required, such as toe protection, or protection against chemical splash, heat, cold, fatigue or cuts.
The qualities of safety footwear are fundamental, not only because they offer immediate protection to the wearer, but because they help, in the short, medium and long term, to preserve the worker’s all-round general mental and physical health and reduce their stress.
Safety footwear for workers has to meet the requirements of the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Regulations 2002, which means that employers must conduct risk assessments on the foot and the risk of slipping and provide, free of charge, special protective footwear where normal footwear is considered to be unsuitable after risk assessment.
This is of course in addition to the legal duty that employers have to safeguard their employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
The advantages of safety footwear
The right safety footwear can bring a huge array of physical and mental benefits, including some that the wearer would probably never have thought of.
The short-term paybacks include:
Maximum grip, which avoids the risk of slips, trips and falls
Reduced fatigue at the end of the day
Decreased energy expenditure when walking
Fewer cervical or lower back pains, cramps, muscle contractions and shocks to the skeletal system
Reduced risk of the consequences of the stress hormone cortisol.
In the medium term, the advantages include:
Increased balance and reflexes
Reduced fascial muscle and joint pain of the legs
Reduced sciatica-related pain
Better circulation and oxygenation leading to improved muscle function, strength and joint mobility and reduction of pain and inflammation
Increased freedom of movement
Decreased recurrent headaches and muscle-fascia pain in the upper limbs
Diminished osteoarthritis symptoms.
In the long term, the benefits are even greater:
Reduced chronic long-term pain and improved leg strength
Greater oxygenation of the back and spinal cord
Improved mobility of the spinal column
Improvement of static and dynamic posture
Improvement of gastro-intestinal and general organic functions
Reduction of corns and calluses
Improved plantar support
Enhanced energy upon waking
Improved respiratory function
Reduction in body inflammation
Improvement of the immune system.
How to ensure worker cooperation
The above benefits of suitable safety footwear are certainly impressive, but workers need to be happy to wear their shoes in the first place, and it may be a challenge to get them to do so. Although safety footwear protects workers from injury and ill-health in hazardous situations that have otherwise been made as safe as possible, it obviously doesn’t protect them if they don’t wear it.
So why do workers sometimes choose not to wear their safety shoes or boots? They may feel the wrong shoes are a hindrance to doing their job properly. However, this feeling can be overcome when they are a good fit, are of good quality, are comfortable – very important – and do not stop the wearer moving freely. Such footwear can make a worker more productive, as well as safer.
Other reasons often given for negative attitudes to safety footwear include: it is uncomfortable, it’s not seen as necessary for the given task, it is too hot, or it is perceived as unattractive, and not ‘cool’, especially by colleagues. Style is really important to most people, and safety shoes that look like the latest trainers, yet offer excellent protection, will have wide appeal.
Providing fashionable, properly-fitting, comfortable and attractive footwear makes people more likely to wear it.
It is often better to take a carrot, rather than a stick based, approach to gain employees’ co-operation. The different types of shoe and boot, and the tasks for which each is suited, need to be clarified.
Firstly, products suitable for the wearers must be chosen to encourage them to develop good habits. Secondly, employees must be educated and trained so that they understand why they need to wear safety footwear and the consequences of not doing so. Thirdly, they should be given a choice of suitable footwear to try on, which empowers them – the same footwear should not be offered to all workers.
Varying degrees of persuasion may be needed, and safety managers need to talk with conviction to their staff. Managers could gently point out that it isn’t the best idea not to wear safety shoes; they could send them home if they are not wearing the correct protection; they could take a ‘two strikes and you’re out’approach; or ban employees from working on site if they are not wearing the appropriate protection – the ‘no PPE, no job’ line of attack. The final sanction would be dismissal, but hopefully, this would not be necessary.
The return of kinetic energy to the wearer via their safety footwear is an exciting new concept that is being adopted by the best manufacturers.
The inclusion of an innovative expanded thermoplastic polyurethane insert, similar to that used in the running world, creates a long-lasting material with greater elastic capacities. The insert under the heel allows energy to be stored with each step and then returned to the wearer when the foot leaves the ground. Some shoes can provide a return of over 40% of energy to their wearers.
This leads to reduced fatigue, improved muscle and leg and foot circulation and spinal alignment, and gives a sense of wellbeing to the whole body, relieving neck, back, leg and joint pain and allowing shoes to be comfortably worn for longer.
How to get the correct fit
The importance of proper fit of safety shoes, boots and trainers cannot be overestimated. Fit is vital for foot comfort and ensuring the footwear is worn all day long, so the fitting process shouldn’t be rushed.
Everyone’s feet are structured differently, with a variety of shapes, sizes and contours, while women’s feet are different again – not just a smaller version of men’s, as may sometimes be supposed.
If incorrectly fitting shoes are worn, a variety of injuries and long-lasting foot problems such as bunions, hammer toes, blisters, calluses, corns and joint pain, may result. Not to mention the loss of comfort and safety and increased risk of tripping and slipping.
Safety shoes should fit in a similar way to ordinary shoes, in that they need a suitable insole to support the arches and balls of the feet and a fit that ensures the heel doesn’t move around too much and that there is adequate room for the toes.
Workers should be given time to try on a number of different shoes or boots, preferably at the end of the working day, as their feet may have swollen considerably by then. They should wear the socks they usually wear at work and walk around in the shoes to make sure they are comfortable.
The length, width and overall volume of the boot or shoe should be checked. The exact width of the wearer’s index finger should fit between the heel of the foot and the back of the shoe on both feet when the knee is bent and the toes are touching the front of the shoe.
The laces should be checked to make sure they can keep the foot comfortably in place without it sliding to the front of the shoe, but without being too tight. Insoles should be really comfortable to support feet, legs, hips and back throughout the working day. To ensure correct support, boots or shoes should flex at the ball of the foot, not the arch, when walking.
The quality of the safety footwear is vital to ensure longevity and comfort. A good boot or shoe will cost less in the long run than several cheaper pairs, and will ensure a happier, more productive workforce.
The right safety footwear can do a multitude of positive things, eliminating joint and muscle stress and pain, while simultaneously providing the support the worker needs and increasing their energy during the working day. It is not something worth skimping on and needs to be taken seriously.
Stuart Thorne is UK managing director of U-Power. For more information, visit: www.u-power.it/en/