Today’s work boots leverage materials and technologies that are flexible, lightweight and durable - all without sacrificing protection.

Safety Footwear 101

July 12, 2012
How technology has changed the landscape of safety footwear and what you need to know to find the right pair

The human foot contains 26 relatively small bones, more than 150 ligaments and an intricate network of muscles, nerves and blood vessels. One small misstep or accident from not wearing the appropriate footwear can cause any assortment of injuries resulting in valuable work time missed or worse.

The factors to consider when selecting a workbook are numerous, with new technology, components and materials ever-changing the safety-footwear options.

The conventional wisdom used to be that the heavier and more inflexible a boot was, the better it would protect feet in industrial and other work environments. But today's work boots lay this wisdom to rest by leveraging materials and technologies that are flexible, lightweight and durable - all without sacrificing protection.

Here is what you need to know about safety footwear materials, components and how to choose a boot that's right for you.

UPPER MATERIALS

As early as 20 years ago, synthetic materials were rarely found in work boots. The recent trend toward work boots that look and feel more like athletic footwear, coupled with increased performance and value of synthetics, has challenged leather's virtual dominance in the work boot market.

Made from an ever-increasing variety of man-madee fibers and resins, most synthetic materials (including leather that is synthetically enhanced) are more lightweight than leather, and can be more durable and readily formulated to be waterproof.

Footwear that has synthetic upper materials are usually designed to be lightweight and feel more like a sport shoe, while maintaining the durability of a more traditional work boot.

For the millions of people who grew up wearing sneakers, a work boot that looks and feels more like a sport shoe is a natural choice. Thanks to advances in the development of man-made materials there are now many more affordable options to choose from.

LEATHER

Although synthetics are making a name for themselves in the work footwear market, leather is undoubtedly the tried and true upper material found in many work boots - and for good reason. Leather is breathable and a good choice for people who are on their feet for hours at a time.

Leather provides a customized fit for each individual because leather molds to the foot with wear. Plus, leather is by nature quite durable.

In order to build on the positive natural characteristics of leather, Wolverine developed a synthetically enhanced leather called ArmorTek. By molding a thin layer of polyurethane onto leather it's possible to maintain important properties of the leather, while significantly boosting the durability to help guard against scuffs and scrapes in high wear areas of the boot.

Wolverine also molds thermoplastic polyurethane into boot components (toe guards, heel guards, ankle supports) to enhance their durability and performance without sacrificing the overall benefits of the leather boot upper.

In order to leverage the advantages of both of these materials, boots that combine leather and man-made materials are becoming more common. Uppers with complementing leather and synthetic components can be designed in a more traditional work boot fashion, or more like a sport shoe.

In either fashion, combining leather and synthetic can result in a lightweight, breathable and flexible upper that embodies the best properties of both kinds of materials.

OUTSOLE MATERIALS

When it comes to outsoles, genuine rubber is still the most common material used. The reason is simple enough: rubber offers excellent performance in terms of abrasion, oil- and slip-resistant qualities that are needed in a work boot where durability and performance are critical.

The main advantage to newer alternative materials like TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), PU (polyurethane) and EVA (Ethel-Vinyl-Acetate) is that they are all lighter in weight, more flexible and, in the case of PU and EVA, provide greater cushioning. Many modern work boots offer combinations of these synthetic materials as well as rubber.

Moreover, advances in chemistry and chemical engineering have allowed boot developers to fine tune the performance characteristics of outsoles so that there is a more focused match between outsole performance and function or customer preference.

TOE-CAPS

A steel cap has been and remains the mainstay of all kinds of footwear that require safety toes.

When it comes to protecting the toe area from a sudden blow (like a heavy box falling) or a protracted compression (toes pinned under a heavy pallet), there are few affordable materials that can meet, let alone exceed, the strength, resilience and elasticity of steel. It remains the safety toe of choice for most people.

Safety caps that are forged from aluminum alloys or thermo-formed from resins and fiberglass composites are, however, challenging the dominance of the steel cap. These new options respond to the one drawback of steel caps: although they are durable and dependable, they are comparatively heavy.

Aluminum and composite caps can be significantly lighter than comparable steel caps. However, there are drawbacks to these lighter options.

In order to meet the performance standards of steel these non-steel alternatives have to be made bigger and thicker. This can make the shoes look bigger in the toe, and can create challenges to proper and comfortable fit.

Aluminum and composite toes are also more expensive than steel. However, with improvements in the cost and performance of non-steel caps (especially in composite caps), the trend away from steel is growing and gaining momentum.

WORK BOOT FEATURES

Tried and true materials - leather, rubber and steel - have earned their solid reputation in the work footwear market with years of proven performance. However, their new challengers - synthetics, PU/TPU/EVA and composite/aluminum - offer their own set of advantages.  

What's best depends on individual safety and comfort needs. The best may be a combination that leverages the best characteristics of each material.

Choosing the right footwear starts with knowing what your needs are, and understanding how they could be met. In a market continually evolving, there are more and more features to examine.

Among work boot features to consider:

- ASTM Certified. Stands for American Society for Testing and Materials. ASTM provides the standards for the level of protection required in safety footwear.

- Steel-Toe. Offers the maximum toe protection from sudden impact or compression. Steel toes need to meet or exceed ASTM standard F2415-11. They are typically made from non-corrosive steel.

A steel-toe boot is a necessity for any job where there is the risk of significant toe injury.

- Composite-Toe. Today's advances in safety technologies have created new forms of safety-toe protection. Modern composite toes are metal-free, lightweight and still satisfy ASTM standards.

Some brands even have proprietary technologies. Wolverine, for example, created Carbon Max, a non-metallic composite-toe that is resistant to heat and cold, non-conductive and lighter than traditional steel-toes while still satisfying ASTM safety standards.

- Metatarsal Guard. A Metatarsal Guard, also known as a Met-Guard, provides additional protection to the instep area. This guard is either permanently attached onto the exterior of the work shoe or can also be built into the footwear itself (known as an Internal Met).

Traditionally, a Metatarsal Guard is needed in work environments where there is a high risk of falling objects or items rolling onto the instep of a worker's foot.

- Static-Dissipating. Safety footwear worn in areas where the generation of static electricity could harm sensitive electrical equipment or ignite flammable materials needs to be electrostatic dissipating (ESD). This type of footwear allows small charges of static electricity to be continuously dissipated into the walking surface, thereby reducing the accumulation of potentially harmful levels of static electricity.

Note well: These shoes should never be worn in areas where there are open circuits or highly charged equipment, as they will do little to protect the wearer from potentially dangerous electrical charges (see EH, next).

- Electrical Hazard (EH). Safety footwear with an EH rating provides workers who may come in contact with live circuits, wires or highly charged electrical equipment with a secondary source of protection from electrical shock. This protection comes from the insulating properties of the footwear that stop a current from being grounded for any significant length of time.

- Fiberglass Shank. A fiberglass shank is a lightweight option to the once traditional steel shank for arch support. Built under the arch, a fiberglass shank offers increased stability and durability without adding weight to the boot.

- Oblique-Toe. Men with large or wide feet often need a bit more room to achieve a comfortable fit for all-day wear. Boots that advertise an oblique toe feature a roomier, boxier toe compartment, providing increased comfort and overall fit.

- Waterproofing. Certain work environments make the use of waterproof footwear a necessity. The most reliable and durable waterproof work footwear on today's market feature waterproof leather combined with a waterproof membrane (e.g., Gore-Tex) within the boot that keeps moisture out while allowing for air ventilation and circulation.

- Rubber Outsole. Rubber offers excellent performance in terms of abrasion, oil- and slip-resistant qualities that are typically valued in a work boot. Vibram is a high-performance rubber and an excellent choice for work sites with rugged terrains and provides maximum traction on both wet and dry surfaces.

- TPU Outsole. Outsoles made from Thermo Plastic Polyurethane (TPU) are long-wearing and are also abrasion-, oil- and chemical-resistant. Designed to be tough, they typically resist splitting and are more lightweight than their rubber counterparts.

- PU Outsoles. Polyurethane (PU) outsoles provide a lightweight, flexible and comfort enhancing option to the typical rubber outsole, while still providing the need abrasion-, slip- and oil-resistant qualities.

- Midsole. A boot's midsole is designed to disperse weight or provide stability for the foot. Work footwear midsoles are either made from Polyurethane or EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate). PU is the premium cushioning material, while EVA offers similar performance characteristics (it is used in most athletic footwear).

PU tends to be more durable, while EVA tends to be more lightweight. A choice between the two generally depends on end use.

- Cement Construction. The manner in which boots are constructed makes a difference in the weight, flexibility and longevity of a boot. Cement construction indicates that the boot's outsole/midsole are cemented permanently to the upper. This construction is lightweight and flexible.

- Direct-Attach. Direct Attach (or Injection) is a boot construction where the sole material is permanently and chemically fused or attached to the upper. This construction is very lightweight, and generally the most flexible type construction. It also has the added benefit of being watertight.

- Goodyear Welt Construction. This provides durability for footwear as the upper and inner sole is stitched together with a strip or "welt." The sole is then stitched through the welt. This process allows boots to be re-soled or repaired, thus extending the longevity of the footwear.

- Opanka Construction. Opanka construction (or side stitch) is when an upper is directly sewn to the upper. This unique construction is achieved by hand-sewing the upper, sock lining and outsole in a single process, delivering the maximum in comfort and flexibility.

Roger Huard is the vice president of product development for Wolverine, a company dedicated to the design of innovative work footwear with superior comfort and durability for more than a century. Wolverine offers a full line of footwear, apparel and accessories for work, casual and rugged outdoor lifestyles. www.wolverine.com.

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