Back to Basics, Personal Protective Equipment

Back to Basics: Foot Protection

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine foot and leg protection standards.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is a crucial factor in many industries for keeping employees safe. There are different standards for each piece of equipment, such as helmets, harnesses, goggles, and gloves, laid out by OSHA and other regulatory agencies. OSHA provides guidance on foot protection specifically, along with the corresponding ANSI standards.

OSHA’s standard

To meet OSHA’s general requirements for foot protection, the employer must ensure that each affected employee uses protective footwear when working in areas where there is a danger of foot injuries. This danger could come from falling or rolling objects, or objects that could pierce the sole of the shoe.

Employees whose work involves exposure to hot substances, or corrosive or poisonous materials must have protective gear to cover exposed body parts, including legs and feet. Footwear is also necessary when its use will protect the affected employee from an electrical hazard, such as a static-discharge or electric-shock hazard, that might remain after the employer takes other necessary protective measures.

If an employee’s feet may be exposed to electrical hazards, non-conductive footwear should be worn. However, workplace exposure to static electricity may call for the use of conductive footwear.

Employees should wear foot and/or leg protection when: 

  • Heavy objects such as barrels or tools might roll onto or fall on the worker’s feet
  • Working with sharp objects such as nails or spikes that could pierce the soles or uppers of ordinary shoes
  • Exposure to molten metal might splash on the feet or legs
  • Working on or around hot, wet, or slipper surfaces
  • Working when electrical hazards are present

Protective footwear must comply with any of the following consensus standards:

  • ASTM F-2412-2005, “Standard Test Methods for Foot Protection”
  • ASTM F-2413-2005, “Standard Specification for Performance Requirements for Protective Footwear”
  • ANSI Z41-1999, “American National Standard for Personal Protection – Protective Footwear”
  • ANSI Z41-1991, “American National Standard for Personal Protection – Protective Footwear”

If an employer can demonstrate that a type of protective footwear is at least as effective as protective footwear that is constructed in accordance with one of the above consensus standards, that footwear can be deemed compliant with OSHA’s footwear requirements.

All ANSI-approved footwear has a protective toe and offers impact and compression protection, but the type and amount of protection is not always the same. Different footwear protects in different ways, so employers should check the product’s labeling or consult the manufacturer to make sure the footwear will protect the user from the correct hazards.

Protection options

Foot and leg protection choices include the following pieces of PPE. Leggings should be used to protect the lower legs and feet from heat hazards such as molten metal or welding sparks, with safety snaps that allow them to be removed quickly. Metatarsal guards, made of aluminum, steel, fiber, or plastic, can be strapped onto the outside of the shoes to protect the instep area from impact and compression.

Toe guards made of steel, aluminum, or plastic can be fit over the toes of regular shoes to protect the toes from impact and compression hazards. Combination foot and shin guards can protect the lower legs and feet and may be used in combination with toe guards when more protection is needed.

Safety shoes have impact-resistant toes and heat-resistant soles that protect the feet against hot work surfaces common in roofing, paving, and hot metal industries. The metal insoles of some safety shoes protect against puncture wounds.

Foundry shoes keep hot metal from lodging in shoe eyelets, tongues, or other shoe parts, in addition to insulating the feet from the extra heat of molten metal. These snug-fitting leather or leather-substitute shoes have leather or rubber soles and rubber heels. All foundry shoes must have built-in safety toes.

Conductive vs nonconductive shoes

Safety shoes can be designed to be electrically conductive to prevent the buildup of static electricity in areas with the potential for explosive atmospheres or nonconductive to protect employees from workplace electrical hazards.

Electrically conductive shoes provide protection against the buildup of static electricity. Employees who work in explosive and hazardous locations such as explosives manufacturing facilities or grain elevators must wear conductive shoes to reduce the risk of static electricity buildup on the body that could produce a spark and cause an explosion or fire. Foot powder should not be used in conjunction with conductive footwear because it provides insulation, which reduces the shoes’ conductive ability.

Silk, wool, and nylon socks can produce static electricity and should not be worn with conductive footwear. Conductive shoes must be removed when the task requiring their use is completed. Also, employees exposed to electrical hazards should never wear conductive shoes.

Electrical hazard, safety-toe shoes are nonconductive and will prevent the wearer’s feet from completing an electrical circuit to the ground. These kinds of shoes can protect against open circuits of up to 600 volts in dry conditions and must be used in conjunction with other insulating equipment and additional precautions. The goal is to reduce the risk of a worker becoming a path for hazardous electrical energy.

The insulating protection electrical hazard, safety-toe shoes may be compromised if the shoes become wet, the soles are worn through, metal particle become imbedded in the sole or heel, or employees touch conductive, grounded items. Nonconductive footwear must never be worn in explosive or hazardous locations.

Footwear care and maintenance

As with all other forms of PPE, safety footwear must be inspected prior to each use. Shoes and leggings must be checked for wear and tear at reasonable intervals. Look for cracks or holes, separation of materials, or broken buckles or laces when examining the gear.

Shoe soles should be checked for pieces of metal or other embedded items that could present electrical or tripping hazards. Employees should follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning and maintenance of protective footwear.

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