In the United States, ensuring that employees work in a safe environment is under the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA has issued regulations mandating that work shoes possess puncture-resistance and crush-resistance in the toes, as well as other safety-related specifications. Surprisingly, the standards for work footwear as specified by OSHA do not have much to say about shoes and their fall-resistance characteristics.
Despite the lack of formal specifications, shoes used in a work environment should meet certain criteria to protect their wearers from potential falls. Below are some factors to consider when selecting work shoes that will be used when job duties increase the risk of falling:
Leather is a rugged, durable material, and it is used in a large number of work shoes for both soles and the other parts of the shoes. However, smooth leather soles are unsafe for use in an environment where falls are possible; they become slippery when exposed to moisture or dust particles, and workers wearing them are likely to experience a sudden, unexpected loss of control while walking on a rooftop, catwalk or other elevated positions.
Softer materials such as rubber are excellent for use if the work environment isn't too harsh; for example, indoor workers who perform technical work in elevated indoor positions may be able to wear shoes that offer a soft sole. For outdoor work environments, polyurethane is usually the most satisfactory choice for footwear soles. Polyurethane soles provides a good compromise between durability and slip-resistance if the environment is challenging.
Tread patterns are also integral when considering footwear choices that minimize the risk of falling. Below are some specific design features that lend themselves to safer shoes:
- Rounded back heel edges - rounded edges permit the heels to strike the surface cleanly and roll forward; this permits a maximum amount of sole material to contact the surface. When sharp-edged heels strike the ground, they offer little more than a narrow slice of surface area that can induce sliding or a loss of horizontal foot stability.
- Cleat design - slip-resistant shoes possess cleats, but these should be carefully incorporated into the overall design of the tread. Otherwise, poorly-implemented cleats actually can worsen the situation by taking away from the total surface area of the tread. Cleats that are truly slip-resistant features will contain multiple edges facing in all directions. For example, a dangerous design is for a shoe to have multiple rows of horizontal cleats. While this pattern may permit a good grip for a worker facing forward, it can be hazardous if the worker is sideways on an incline, such as a rooftop.
- Tread depth - work shoes should have an appropriate amount of depth between the bottom of the cleat and the bottom of the sole. Shallow grooves permit the collection of oils, mud or other slippery materials and will not provide a sufficient amount of space for these substances to be isolated from the cleat surface.
There are a couple of other meaningful factors besides slip-resistance when evaluating work shoes:
- Supportiveness - shoes worn in a potential fall hazard situation should be supportive. They should be flexible enough to permit natural, intentional movement yet should not give way in any direction. A shoe that doesn't reach high enough up the leg can permit a worker to "roll" their ankle and fall, especially when the footing is tricky or sloping.
- Fastening method - another important consideration is how the shoes are fastened. Laces can be dangerous if they aren't sufficiently tightened and fail to provide support for the foot. In addition, loose laces present tripping and entanglement hazards to workers. If possible, choose a buckled shoe that permits adjustment and also minimizes hazardous loose ends.
Combining the proper shoes with other fall protection equipment can go a long way towards keeping you safe on the job.