Footwear: not a ‘one size fits all’ solution

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Although there is wealth of information on preventing slips, trips and falls in the workplace, most professionals recognise they are extremely difficult to manage given the way people work and the environments in which work is carried out.

It has been 40 years since the launch of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – a piece of legislation that transformed the way worker safety is managed in the UK, leading to a dramatic 85% reduction in fatal workplace injuries and a 77% reduction in non-fatal injuries. Despite this, according to a report from a recent HSE board meeting, it seems the downward trend in workplace injuries may be levelling off. Since some of the leading causes of workplace injury in the UK are related to slips, trips and falls, this makes for worrying reading as they were estimated to have cost the UK economy 2m lost working days during 2012/13.

Slips, trips and falls alone were responsible for over 29,000 reported incidents in the UK in 2012/13 which caused a major injury lasting over seven days, or a fatality. Falls from height, slips, trips and falls on the same level are associated with more fatal and major injuries to workers than any other type of injury.

When it comes to managing slips, trips and falls, one of the big challenges for safety managers is to identify and place critical control and accident prevention measures into working environments. Through bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) there is a wealth of information, advice and guidance on managing slips, trips and falls in the workplace. So why is it that despite this wealth of advice they continue to cause such a problem in the workplace?

If you read any literature relating to this issue you will realise that one of the essential components of any slip, trip and fall management programme is housekeeping, with work areas needing to be kept free of any hazards that could create a potential problem.

For contained areas such as offices and factories, which often have standardised procedures in standardised environments, this is more straightforward. But for outdoor workers in industries such as construction and transport and logistics where people are almost always on the move in different environments and conditions, the challenge for the safety manager becomes extreme and ‘standard’ preventative measures cannot always be applied.

Where the environment cannot be managed through engineering out risk exposure, one of the keys to minimising slip, trip and fall risks is to equip workers with safety footwear designed to deal with specific hazards they encounter. While on the surface much of the safety footwear today looks similar, it is vitally important to remember and understand there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, Originally, safety footwear was very much about providing physical protection. That need still exists today of course but there are also other requirements.

When selecting safety footwear therefore, there are a number of considerations to take into account:

Sole performance: think of a sole unit as a tyre tread, designed to provide grip performance and stability. The environment and conditions will help determine what sole unit is required. For example, are workers encountering wet, muddy or uneven surfaces? Is there a need for heat or cold resistance? Maybe they are climbing ladders or stairs regularly?

If slip performance is critical, consider sole units that have an indicator system with a colour change  to highlight when the sole is wearing down.

Choosing the wrong sole unit in the wrong environment can increase the chances of a slip, trip or fall accident. For example, a sole unit with shallow tread without deep self-cleaning cleats is likely to become clogged very quickly in muddy conditions, increasing risk.

Comfort: critical not just for worker wellbeing but also for accident prevention. Heavy, cumbersome or inflexible safety footwear can increase the chances of foot fatigue and in turn the chance of a slip, trip or fall. The latest innovations in the market include insoles that accommodate different foot widths and use comfort foam for improved fit. Also consider anti-foot fatigue features such as foot arch supports. Some technical fibres are designed to provide temperature control with anti-bacterial channels to manage perspiration. Composite metal-free safety footwear that is lighter is also available. Other developments include built in metatarsal protection that wraps around the foot; footwear that support the arch and increase fit and comfort; and speed lacing systems.

Physical protection: it’s important to ensure that appropriate physical protection measures are in place, such as toe and ankle protection, pierce resistant sole units and scuff caps

Type of work: look at the way people work and the type of work they do. Are they on their feet all day – constantly on the move, moving across uneven surfaces, twisting and turning or flexing? Ensure their way of working is built into the safety footwear selection process.

Collaboration: last but not least, safety managers don’t need to manage alone. Footwear producers spend a lot of time working with companies directly to understand their business and observe the specific hazards they face in order to inform research and product development. For some workers physical protection is paramount, but for others slip resistance is absolutely vital, so it is esential to look at factors such as the working environment (indoor, outdoor), underfoot terrain (flat, uneven, undulating, wet, muddy), the hazardous substances that workers will likely come into contact with, how they work; the time they are at work and any wider hazards they are likely to encounter. Companies that manufacture safety footwear also physically observe workers and note any other factors which might affect which footwear they should use – sometimes these can include issues they haven’t even realised existed. Tap into the knowledge and expertise of leading safety footwear manufacturers to aid the selection process.

If, as it seems, accident reduction levels are starting to slow, safety managers need to take a fresh look at slips, trips and falls. Given the numbers reported annually there is still much more that can be done. Slip, trips and falls can be extremely difficult to manage, given the way people work and the environments in which that work is carried out.

PPE should always be the last line of defence, but where it is necessary, it is essential that time is invested to fully research the right solutions for the right environments. While on the surface they may look similar, under the surface the difference in technical features can be massive and contribute significantly to a worker’s comfort, wellbeing and above all else safety and accident prevention. Leading manufacturers have built up a wealth of technical knowledge and incorporate this into key user features within their ranges, while at the same time constantly striving for newer, better and further enhanced footwear solutions.

Stuart Turnbull is UK managing director at Honeywell Safety Products



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