Posted on June 19 2019
When you look at the foundation of your safety program, what do you see? If you said, “shoes,” it’s possible you’re just being cheeky – but you might be more correct than you know. After all, slips, trips and falls are a persistent leading cause of lost workdays, and that’s just one category of injuries that can be significantly affected by the shoes your workers are wearing. Ergonomic injuries (including chronic back pain), crushing injuries, amputations, electrical injuries, fires and explosions are other workplace hazards that can be partly or completely prevented through footwear choices. When you roll in the potential product quality and customer service issues, such as the maintenance of clean rooms in pharmaceutical and electronics manufacturing, infection control in health care, or simply not tracking dirt into the private homes of your customers, it becomes clear that you need to be thinking hard about your workers’ soles.
When you take a closer look at protective footwear, you’ll see that in a modern workplace it goes beyond just the shoes that workers are wearing. In fact, it often goes over the shoes workers are wearing. Here’s what you need to know about how carefully selected overshoes can make your workplace safer.
There are shoes... and then there are overshoes
Every employee should have a work shoe or boot that enables them to safely perform the basic functions of the job. For construction and warehouse workers, this may be an ordinary steel-toed work boot; for nurses, this may be a clog that has a memory-foam insole, slip-resistant sole and waterproof upper that’s impermeable to blood and body fluids and easy to wipe clean.
Beyond that, however, the demands of the workday may vary just enough that workers need to be able to quickly adapt the protective capabilities of their footwear to deal with specific job tasks or work areas. For that, an overshoe – footwear that slips on and off over their regular shoe or boot – may be the perfect solution.
In addition to requirements affecting employees, many workplaces have safety shoe policies that affect visitors. For example, perhaps you require everyone entering the production area to wear steel toed shoes. To ensure that visitors are protected and workplace rules are universally enforced, a selection of overshoes can be a more cost-effective and user-friendly solution than keeping a supply of safety shoes on hand in a range of sizes.
When you’re considering the situations in which overshoes might be the solution to your foot safety concerns, here are some things to think about:
Do you have workers who visit many different settings during the day? For example, consider a construction supervisor who travels to different work sites. He may begin his day at his office, and travel from there to a new construction site. From there, he may go check an ongoing renovation, where he’ll walk through the lobby of a nice office building. His next stop may be an undeveloped site, to begin working up a quote – at that stop, he may find himself wading a stream or two. In moving from comfortable, professional office shoes to steel-toed boots, which he will then have to clean off in order to avoid making an unprofessional mess of the next client’s lobby, and perhaps change to a pair of tall rubber boots for evaluating the next site, he may waste a lot of time – and take up a lot of space in his vehicle – changing from one expensive pair of shoes to another. For this supervisor, a few sets of carefully selected overshoes can enable him to be ready for whatever the job requires on a given day more quickly, and at less expense than carrying multiple pairs of shoes around.
Do you have workers who move in and out of different work areas that have specific footwear requirements? Surgical staff in a hospital, spray booth operators at a parts manufacturing facility, and other workers who spend their days going into areas where, firstly, they don’t want to carry contaminants in, and secondly, they don’t want to carry contaminants out, may benefit from overshoes that both contain the contaminants on their shoes, and also prevent their shoes from becoming contaminated or soiled.
Do conditions in your workplace change with the weather? Perhaps in June, it’s important that your workers’ footwear be waterproof, with basic slip resistance; in January, though, they may need shoes that enable them to walk safely on ice, at least while they’re outdoors. An overshoe that provides good ice traction – but is easily removable at the building entrance – may be just what they require.
Do workers’ job tasks sometimes require specific, temporary protection? A restaurant or factory worker may need a solid shoe with a basic nonslip sole for most of the workday – until it’s time to clean the floors. At that point, the worker may need a waterproof shoe with a more robust anti-slip sole, and perhaps even chemical resistance or above the ankle coverage, in order to complete the task safely. An overshoe or boot that can be pulled on quickly, worn while completing the task and then removed can reduce the expense of providing a separate pair of safety shoes and the time required to complete the task. When you consider that the same pair of overshoes may be usable by more than one worker, the cost decreases and the convenience increases even further.
Do workers need to be able to decontaminate or clean their shoes easily? A high-quality pair of work boots offers a lot of advantages – but when it comes to chemical or biological contamination or even to slogging through mud, they may have significant drawbacks. Many overshoes are designed to be easily cleaned and decontaminated with a hose or washing machine and can be more cost-effective than trying to purchase a shoe that does it all and comes out in the wash.
Not your grandfather’s galoshes
At one time, “overshoes” conjured up images of outsize rubber boots designed to wear over “nice” shoes in wet weather. But today’s overshoes are not your grandfather’s galoshes. Overshoes today can be selected to perform whatever combination of tasks you may need. making them an economical, efficient, flexible safety footwear choice for many applications. Do you just need a cleated sole for workers to use when conditions are icy? They’re available in easily removable sandal styles. Do you need steel-toed slip-ons for visitors, that also provide an anti-skid sole, and that fit over a heeled shoe? They’re available in stretch-to-fit shoe cover styles, or styles that attach with an adjustable heel strap.
It’s possible today to mix, match, and select overshoes that provide features and protections that include:
Slip resistance. Overshoes for use in slippery conditions caused by wet, soapy, dusty, or oily contaminants will have a textured or gritty sole, with high grip. Different materials offer different degrees of slip resistance, and soles should be chosen to offer the best possible combination of slip resistance with the ability to withstand the types of substances found in the work environment and the type of ground surface.
Shoe covers designed for slip resistance in icy conditions have studded or cleated soles for traction, and will generally also have uppers designed for durability in cold conditions.
Water resistance. Keep workers’ feet dry with tall, waterproof overshoes in the traditional “galoshes” style; combine with slip-resistant soles, steel toes, or chemical resistance for the overshoe your workers need. Workers in construction, food processing, restaurants, janitorial work, and waste cleanup may find ready uses for this style of overshoe.
Chemical resistance. Where chemicals and oils are a factor – for example, in the petrochemical, pharmaceutical, plastics, and waste remediation industries – the sole and uppers can be made of appropriate chemical-resistant materials.
Crush and impact resistance. Steel toe caps can be strapped onto shoes, or can be incorporated into overshoes that provide other types of protection. Metatarsal guards are also available that can be transferred from shoe to shoe and can be secured with the laces of the shoes workers are already wearing.
Foot, ankle and leg protection. Foot, ankle and leg guards can be strapped on to protect the tops of feet and the fronts of the legs from abrasion and impact. Welding spats provide protection for the tops and fronts of the feet, legs and ankles from burns caused by welding sparks and spatter.
Puncture resistance. Puncture resistant soles provide protection against puncture hazards such as nails, screws, wires, metal scraps, other puncture hazards.
Electric hazard protection. In any places where workers may be exposed to electrical hazards, including construction and utility workers, overshoe soles can be equipped with barriers that impede current from the ground. Dielectric protective overshoes are sometimes worn over leather lineman’s boots for extra protection.
Static dissipation. Overshoes designed to dissipate electric charge into the ground are used in places where static electricity poses a hazard either to the product (for example, in electronics production) or to the workplace (for example, in explosives manufacturing). These overshoes must not be confused with shoes that offer a dielectric barrier; the wrong electrical protective sole can create rather than prevent a hazardous condition.
Fatigue protection. Overshoes are available with anti-fatigue soles for workers who spend long periods of time on their feet on hard surface floors. The overshoe style offers increased mobility over the anti-fatigue mats commonly found in workplaces.
Contamination control. In health care, electronics manufacturing, and customer service occupations that involve going in and out of private homes, overshoes often serve as a way of preventing contamination that may be on workers’ shoes from entering clean environments. In other occupations, including health care and spray finishing, the overshoe may also or alternatively serve to protect the workers’ shoes from contamination. Overshoes that are used to prevent contamination may be reusable, or for workers dealing with biological contaminants or environments where cleaning would be difficult (for example, service calls in private homes) disposable overshoes might be the most effective choice.
Selecting for grip and chemical resistance
Overshoes are made of a variety of materials; the material you choose should offer the best performance for your work environment. All of the materials listed below are waterproof, although construction also affects whether an overshoe is proof against liquids. The grip (when used for soles) and chemical resistance of the materials varies.
- Rubber generally offers the best “grip” in oily or greasy environments, but it may not be the best choice for environments where animal fats or solvents are the main contaminants.
- PVC offers good slip resistance, and is a good choice for use with animal fats, petroleum and mineral oil, concrete and chlorine bleach.
- Neoprene offers good slip resistance, and performs well against organic and inorganic chemicals, cleaning agents, gasoline, and animal fats and oils.
- Nitrile is a synthetic rubber that outperforms natural rubber against many solvents, oils, and greases, as well as some acids and bases, but does poorly against halogenated and aromatic hydrocarbons.
- Polyurethane is lightweight, flexible, and durable, offering excellent slip resistance. It’s a poor choice for exposure to acids or bases.
Ensuring compliance with standards
Overshoes, like regular protective footwear, must meet consensus standards for performance. General industry regulatory requirements for protective footwear are found in 29 CFR1910.136, Foot Protection. OSHA requires that protective footwear comply with the applicable ASTM standard, the currently applicable standards include:
- ASTM F2413, Standard Specification for Performance Requirements for Protective (Safety) Toe Cap Footwear. This standard includes tests for toe area impact and compression protection and metatarsal impact and compression resistance, although this part of the standard does not apply to overshoes. It also includes standards for puncture resistance, electrical hazard protection, and static dissipation.
- ASTM F2892-18, Standard Specification for Performance Requirements for Soft Toe Protective Footwear (Non-Safety / Non-Protective Toe) provides performance requirements for non-safety toe footwear with respect to its static dissipation, electrical hazard protection, and puncture resistance.
- In the US, there are no performance standards for slip resistance, however, employers who are interested in a standardized assessment of slip resistance can ask whether an overshoe’s coefficient of friction has been tested under ASTM F2913-19, Standard Test Method for Measuring the Coefficient of Friction for Evaluation of Slip Performance of Footwear and Test Surfaces/Flooring Using a Whole Shoe Tester
Employees and overshoes
Employers who struggle to get workers to wear appropriate footwear in the first place may wonder about the potential problems of getting workers to wear overshoes. Encourage workers to wear their overshoes by:
Conveying the importance of overshoes. Whether they’re a clean room requirement or an icy-surface option, workers are more likely to wear their overshoes if they understand exactly why the overshoes are important, and what protection they’re providing for the worker, the product, or the customer.
Sizing overshoes properly. Manufacturers offer different methods for getting a good overshoe fit, whether the overshoe is stretch to fit, has an adjustable drawstring or straps, or slides on like a sandal. Make sure that you choose appropriate sizes and that workers know how to fit the overshoes properly.
Selecting shoes that go on and come off easily. Workers entering clients’ homes may prefer a slide-on, open-toe sandal to a paper shoe cover. Workers in clean rooms may find automatic shoe cover machines and shoe cover removers convenient and easy to use.