Safety Starts with the Feet

Preventing costly foot injuries is good for employees and the business.

By Alexandra Walsh

Foot injuries such as bone breaks, fractures, and heel injuries are among the most common workers’ compensation injuries. A study of over 250,000 workers’ comp claims found the average final settlement for a foot injury is more than $17,000.

Clearly then, prevention of workplace foot injuries makes good sense for workers and employers.

The Standard

OSHA regulation 1910.136(a) covers foot safety: The employer shall ensure that each affected employee uses protective footwear when working in areas where there is a danger of foot injuries due to falling or rolling objects, or objects piercing the sole, or when the use of protective footwear will protect the affected employee from an electrical hazard, such as a static-discharge or electric-shock hazard, that remains after the employer takes other necessary protective measures.

Foot Health Is Important

There are two major categories of work-related foot injuries. The first includes foot injuries resulting from punctures, crushing, sprains, and lacerations. The second group of injuries includes those resulting from slips, trips, and falls. Not that slips and falls always result in foot injuries, but lack of attention to foot safety plays an important role in why they occur.

These two categories of foot injuries do not exhaust the whole range of foot problems while at work. There are also other conditions such as calluses, ingrown toenails, or simply tired feet that are common among workers.

Although these may not be considered as occupational injuries in the strictest sense, they can have serious consequences when it comes to health and safety at the workplace. After all, they do cause discomfort, pain, and fatigue.

Fatigue sets up a worker for further injuries affecting their muscles and joints. Also, a worker who is tired and suffering pain is going to be less alert and more likely to act in an unsafe manner. No telling what kind of an accident might result.

The best way to involve workers in programs to protect their feet is to provide:

  • Training and information on the health hazards of wearing improper shoes
  • Principles for selecting proper shoes
  • Simple rules of general foot care.

Foot Hazards

There are several different types of job hazards that can require protective footwear:

  • Heavy materials being cut with a saw, shear, or cutting torch, falling and striking an employee’s foot
  • Handling heavy tools or building materials that are easily dropped or knocked over, falling and striking a foot
  • Rolling objects and equipment such as heavy pipes, steel billets, wheeled carts, and other round objects rolling over or on a foot
  • Sharp objects on walking surfaces such as nails, sharp rebar, shards of broken glass, or sharp pieces of metal piercing the soles of a shoe or boot
  • Toxic chemicals saturating footwear and being absorbed through the skin
  • Working around energized electrical lines and equipment exposing workers to electrical current that can travel through footwear with conductive soles.

Footwear for Work

Proper footwear is important not only for its comfort but for an overall sense of well-being. The wrong footwear can cause or aggravate existing foot problems.

Unfortunately, being fashionable sometimes takes precedence over choosing well-fitting, supportive safety footwear for some people. That cannot be allowed to happen.

Good footwear should have these qualities:

  • The inner side of the shoe must be straight from the heel to the end of the big toe.
  • The shoe must grip the heel firmly.
  • The front of the shoe must allow freedom of movement for the toes.
  • The shoe must have a fastening across the instep to prevent the foot from slipping when walking.
  • The heel should not be more than 2½ inches and not lower than the ball of the foot.

People buying footwear for work should consider these following tips:

  • Do not expect footwear that is too tight will stretch with wear.
  • Have both feet measured when buying shoes because feet normally differ in size.
  • Buy shoes to fit the bigger foot.
  • Buy shoes in the afternoon when feet are likely to be swollen to their maximum size.
  • Use shock-absorbing insoles where the job requires a lot of walking or standing on hard ground.
  • Ask a doctor’s advice if properly fitting shoes are not available.

When selecting footwear, remember that tight socks can cramp the toes as much as poorly fitted shoes. Wrinkled socks or socks that are too large or too small can cause blisters. White woolen or cotton socks may be recommended since colored socks cause skin allergies in some people.

Protective Footwear

To protect against foot injury, remember the fundamental principle of occupational health and safety. Eliminate occupational hazards at the source!

The role of personal protective equipment (PPE) is to minimize exposure to specific occupational hazards, not eliminate them. Protective footwear does not guarantee total protection.

All working footwear should provide comfort without compromising protection. A steel toe cap should cover the whole length of the toes from tips to beyond the natural bend of the foot. A soft pad covering the edge of the toecap will increase comfort. If the toecap cuts into the foot, either the size or style of the footwear is not right.

  • Soles come in a variety of thicknesses and materials. They need to be chosen based on the hazards and types of flooring in the workplace.
  • Protective footwear comes in a variety of materials such as nylon, polyester, and canvas. Selection should consider work hazards and individual characteristics of the worker’s foot.
  • A steel midsole which protects the foot from being penetrated by sharp objects should be flexible enough to allow the foot to bend.
  • No one type of non-slip footwear can prevent the wearer from slipping on every type of surface.

Avoiding Cold Feet

Working outdoors in cold weather poses a special requirement for selecting the proper footwear. Normal protective footwear is not designed for cold weather, while insulated footwear may give little temperature protection if the sole of the shoe doesn’t have any insulation there.

Foot protection against cold weather can be resolved by:

  • Insulating the legs by wearing thermal undergarments
  • Wearing insulating overshoes over work footwear
  • Wearing insulating muffs around the ankles and over top of the footwear.

Good Foot Care

Feet are subject to a great variety of skin and toenail disorders. Workers can avoid many of them by following simple rules of foot care:

  • Wash the feet daily with soap, rinse thoroughly and dry, especially between the toes.
  • Trim toenails straight across and not too short. Do not cut into the corners.
  • Wear clean socks and change them daily.

Some feet sweat more than others and are more prone to athlete’s foot. Again, following a few simple guidelines may help:

  • Select shoes that are made of leather or canvas, not synthetic materials.
  • Keep several pairs of shoes on hand and rotate shoes daily to allow them to air out.
  • White woolen or cotton socks are recommended since dyes in colored socks may cause or aggravate skin allergies.
  • Use foot powder.

If foot problems persist such as ingrown toenails, calluses, corns, fungal infection, and more serious conditions such as flat feet and arthritis, see a doctor or health care specialist and follow their advice.


Injuries to feet lead to lost time on the job and can be costly to employers. That’s why it is important to make sure your workers are always wearing the right shoes and boots on their feet for the job at hand.

Get Safety Products from NGWA
Go to the NGWA online bookstore and get items to keep you safe. Included are:

Model Environmental Health & Safety Manual, a downloadable complete safety program that can be stored online or in a three-ring binder.

Employee Safety Manual, second edition, a 40-page pocket-size book with details on a variety of safety topics.

Safety Meetings for the Groundwater Industry, which contain details for leading weekly safety meetings printed on two-part carbonless paper with areas for employee and supervisor signatures.

Click here to learn more.

Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.