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Slip Sliding Away

Published: 03rd Jun 2013 in OSA Magazine

Of all the categories of footwear that are gainfully employed using a functional attribute, no segment relies so heavily on a guaranteed performance of its claims than the industrial and safety footwear industry.

The high fashion industry may have its runway tumbles, as high heels become dangerous to walk in on shiny floors; the Arctic blasts of cold weather make warm linings a necessity to avoid frostbite developing; rainy wet weather can quickly become an uncomfortable feeling for socks and their wearer as water seeps in through hole punctures; and a top professional athlete can find his or her hopes and dreams of victory dashed by a sudden and unexpected ‘fall from grace’ due to the wrong shoe sole for the surface needs of the day.

These such ‘accidents’ pale in comparison to the more serious problems that can be encountered in the world of occupational footwear.

In other activities most repercussions from slips, trips and falls are in the main quickly rehabilitated from but with industrial footwear worn in industrial contexts, accidents can not only be serious, they can be life threatening.

The nature of the beast

Work related injuries tend to be broad in nature as each and every type of industrial activity has the potential for more than one type of damage to the foot.

One only has to look at the various corporate logos that industrial and safety footwear companies use within their branding to recognise that protection is an all encompassing, 360 degree need. From Turtles to Rhinos and anything in between, it takes a tough, hard shell to keep the foot and ankle area well protected.

Industrial hazards are many and millions of dollars have been spent over the century for the development of specialised, job fitted footwear.

Accidents can happen at any time despite the greatest of care.

Common foot injuries that entail sprains can emanate from such basic things as a too loosely laced and unsupported boot design.

For cuts, it can be an incorrect assessment of the areas of protection required for the job involved.

For penetrative dangers, boot soles that offer armadillo like sole plates can do the job but what if those dangers lurk from above the sole area? Hence our industry has built a selection of steel and alternative non metal materials to be used as toe caps, side and sole bottom panels.

Surprisingly, a greater number of injuries occur as a result of on the job slips, trips and falls where the danger of the day may lay in the most unexpected of circumstances.

These types of accidents, while probably not normally as immediately painful as the cuts and punctures of everyday common events, can lead to serious injury given the hard hostile nature of the everyday industrial site.

Fit for purpose

When we develop safety footwear of any type, it is imperative that we study the functionality of the job at hand. Safety footwear has been around for much longer than the performance athletic business we now see flooded in the marketplace, with every conceivable gimmick dreamed possible. Interestingly, though, it was the white athletic shoe market that took the study of kenesiology to a whole new level of product application, and introduced the athletic world to biomechanical gait analysis and other aspects of these sciences to help define how footwear could make athletes perform better.

If I have one criticism of the industrial footwear market, it is that we failed to recognise the impact that biomechanical study could have on the functional improvement of our products. Even more interesting, as proven by the likes of the leading athletic brands, they could also triple their retail price points and still create an endearing fan base of young consumers.

Imagine what critical analysis could do in terms of product advancement if we applied biomechanical research to the functional needs of industrial and safety footwear.

Industrial footwear and safety footwear in particular live with hazards of all types during every working moment for an employee.

Danger lurks in unsuspecting ways. Hot materials can melt or burn through light protected areas. Objects of great weight or sharp projections can fall on to a foot or penetrate from below. Acids can burn skin and melt sole substances. Faulty electrical locations can shock, injure and even kill employees not insulated from such potential problems.

An object sticking up in the wrong spot can trip a person and cause a serious fall in to other dangerous environments and the same can happen for a slippery surface.

You know all of this is elementary to those in the business, but it is these dangers that we must always be conscious of when developing the right boot or shoe for the right occupation.

Technical considerations

If we apply biomechanical analysis to the problems of slips, trips and falls, we need to study each and every occupational hazard. This article does not afford the space to cover such a broad array of problem areas.

What we do know as a generality for this topic, is that our choice of soling is one very important element of a successful occupational footwear product, no matter what the job fitted need.

Let’s start with some basics.

1. It is a fallacy to say lightness is everything when it comes to technical features. Certain occupations like service footwear needs in hospitals and restaurants may require soft, comfortable light shoes, but be wary of the compounds used for soling materials that are not proven to be slip resistant in wet floor conditions. Even a loose sheet of paper, or a glossy magazine dropped on the floor can cause major slippage on an already smooth surface.

Many sole accidents can in fact be caused by the lack of sufficient ankle support in soft, unstructured comfortable shoes that some staff prefer to use for their daily work.

2. Heavy industry needs a solid shoe construction as the first level of protection. Too much torque in the construction can become unsupportive to the ankle. The traditional Goodyear Welted (GYW) product may have lost a lot of favour because of its complexity to manufacture and, as a result, we now have a lot of more glamorous, modern day construction offerings, but the GYW is still one of the most effective, solid functional bases from which to build a performance industrial boot.

3. Many alternative materials and compounds now exist for manufacturing processes, but natural rubber still outperforms the qualities of many other newer synthetic applications.

Rubber is not, however, a specific single solid element when it is used as a sole. Rubber moulded units come with differing compound attributes, but they also come with varying levels of quality because of the various fillers used to lower the cost of the units. You truly get what you pay for.

Poor quality of rubber compounding can reduce traction qualities and even more importantly to my mind, increase the danger of accidents through faster abrasive wear.

For example, a quick check of a wearer’s heel wear points will not only show what supination or pronation problems that wearer has, but a badly worn such shoe may in fact enhance the possibility of a serious trip or fall while on the job, as the wear points can throw off the correct line of balance for the wearer at any given moment.

4. Sole designs are not the same as designs for tyres. They may have certain traction needs such as tyres have for certain weather conditions, but the movement of a car does not follow the ever changing possibilities that can move a foot in so many immediate directions, and thus be constantly susceptible to falls and other accidents.

For too long the shoe industry generally has been plagiarising sole applications from fellow competitors rather than researching the best applicable cleat and other tread patterns for industrial occupations. In addition, few today are trained in the skills of understanding what are the functional design needs of specific job related industries.

I urge designers to upgrade their skills and study what the ‘coefficient of friction’ means, and how it is applied to the biomechanical needs of an industrial footwear sole.

A simple Googling of the term will bring those who are interested to an easy explanation of how we use this scientific term and testing procedure to evaluate the traction of our shoe bottoms, and learn which material compounds work best in each of the major hazard environments workers operate within.

5. Side profiles of work boots are also important. We now live in a world of relative affluence – at least for those with a job – and for the past 20 years or so, there has been a trend to try to streamline and modernise the look of industrial footwear in an attempt, from my observation, to raise the image of the old overweight lunch box toting ‘redneck’ as being the average consumer of industrial footwear, no matter the occupation.

This may be due also to the fact that plumbers and other such building trades people have also now risen to the level of salaries normally associated with higher educated white collar workers, and this new generation now wants sleeker looks to match the sleeker cars or trucks they drive, and not be reminded of the type of footwear their fathers wore to work for a hard day’s grind in what could be considered deplorable conditions by today’s Western health and safety standards.

There’s nothing wrong with adapting athletic looks – particularly their side profiles – to industrial footwear design applications, but designers of such offerings should be aware of the dangers that too soft a midsole compound can affect ankle roll over and lead to serious sprains and falls.

6. Minor functional design details are sometimes neglected in the rush to meet deadlines for product sales shows, but a well thought out and implemented detail can enhance safety and not be costly to include.

a. Good fitting, anatomically correct lasts, with lots of room for toes to spread and grip can prevent accidental loss of balance. Freedom for toes to move somewhat instead of being tightly packed together makes an enormous contribution to a feeling of comfort and weight dispersion. Just as in shock dispersion from impact against a hard resistant force, the energy derived from the shock is more easily dissipated if it can travel down each skeletal structure of the metartasals and tarsals –or toes – without reverberating against the other skeletal bones.

b. The width of the heel base can be a little broader and somewhat flared to help with rear stability. Lessons can be learned from the flared waffle soles that started the Nike era of domination in athletic footwear.

c. The toe spring of lasts should be examined. Increased toe spring for occupations that require lifting of heavy objects, for example, need all the help they can get by applying the principles of leverage to industrial footwear last profiles.

Heel pitch, or height, like for toe spring needs study to find the optimum foot to floor angle. This is where biomechanical analysis can help to overcome certain fatigue factors commonly associated with work related injuries.

d. Sole edges can be hidden accident traps on certain surfaces. Rounded edges can stop enhancing roll over situations caused by sharp angles becoming pivot points. Don’t believe me? Then study the needs of indoor court sports like squash, badminton, volleyball and yes, basketball and indoor tennis, and you will see why so many poorly designed athletic shoes are causing more and more top professional athletes to have serious sprains to ankles, knees and hips.

It’s not any different for industrial workers and their actions over a long day – these workers just have different occupational hazards and even more varied surfaces to contend with.

e. Flex points both for upper patterns and later sole bottoming units once were the exclusive domain of performance athletic footwear and yet their origins lie in the work of Dr Peter Cavanagh at Penn State in the early1970s, where he and his team, financed by the US military – then embroiled in the Vietnam war – took the science of kinesiology and its offshoot of biomechanical gait analysis to study the optimum needs of infantrymen from the perspective of elements such as equipment weight bearing.

From these humble but serious beginnings, instead of logically being adopted by industrial footwear ‘gurus’, this new information was selected by and begat a whole world of performance athletic footwear design that introduced us as consumers to simple, functional, low cost applications that enhanced our sporting activity.

Sadly a decade or so later and it all went the world of gimmicks and peer pressure one upmanship, and the classic principles of the benefits of correctly located flex points went by the wayside as celebrity endorsements took over.


Unfortunately, the industrial footwear industry has in the main, from my humble observations, tended to be conservative in thinking, technologically driven and not biomechanically committed.

We have seen excellent improvements in moulding techniques for both fully moulded categories and bottom attached processes. We have seen a move to synthetic bottoming as both a cost saving venture and an intent to become less reliant on natural raw materials that have to be imported from far way places.

Despite this, I sometimes feel we are not keeping an eye on the ball as to what job related, functional needs are and were about.

As I see it from my bully pulpit, organisations are consolidating more and more from a global perspective. Competition is becoming diminished as giant companies do deals with giant companies, and ‘lesser mortals’ need not apply.

The dangers of on the job accidents are not declining as we build larger and ever more sophisticated enterprises. Yes, I will agree that much of the old fashioned industrial applications have moved to offshore, low labour cost areas where safety rules are also somewhat lax in application, but at the same time, here in the West, the sophistication of key operation needs has now become a critical factor for the training of such people. On the job accidents may not be greater in number but the impact of such a key operator lost to a site for a period of time can result in many other employees having to be laid off until suitable replacements can be found. This is costly in the extreme for contracts that have serious financial penalties for failure to meet agreed deadlines.

Good, well protected feet in footwear designed to anticipate and protect against common on site hazards, will never go away no matter how much the type of industrial skills change. Yes, the equipment is more sophisticated and more expensive to operate and – more than ever – the individual operating the facility needs to know that he or she has the best thought out footwear protection that can be bought.

Published: 03rd Jun 2013 in OSA Magazine


Phillip Nutt

My Family background in work boots and Northampton’s reputation for Goodyear Welts and Doc Martens exposed me to much of the in depth basics of Industrial Footwear, but at Bata, as Director of Wholesale Marketing, we created a major global Industrial Division, in which we coordinated global activities via international conferences and the development of the Bata Industrials Turtle logo, which is still used worldwide. I worked very closely with the US and European industrial footwear divisions and their key clients, and while in South Africa as Regional Product Development Officer for Southern Africa, through to Australasia, I was directly involved in the conceptual side of the product development.

Since leaving Bata to form my own consultancy company, Wenco International Footwear Consultants Inc, I have worked on industrial footwear projects for many major shoe companies around the world.

Wenco International Footwear Consultants Inc was conceived out of our own experiences to meet the emergency needs of our clients. Our role, our reason for being, is to be there to help you with fast reliable help that gets the job done.
We deal with all types of footwear trade emergencies and challenges, each of us with a special niche knowledge of our industry.

This organisation was conceived out of our own needs experiences, while working for major shoe companies. We saw the need for people that were available to deal with the emergency needs of understaffed or under-skilled clients. Our role is to quickly and effectively help you with fast, reliable and professional services.


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