How do I know which kind of safety toe is right for a specific job?
I hate answering a question with a question, but to tell you which safety toe is best suited for a task, I'd have to ask, "What kind of hazards are associated with that task?"
In other words, the first step to finding the ideal safety toe is to conduct a comprehensive hazard analysis and assessment of the work.
Risk Assessment and Standards
OSHA Standards provide great basic details for that assessment process as it relates to PPE (including safety toes):
- OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.132 requires employers to assess the workplace to determine if hazards are present, or are likely to be present, which necessitate the use of PPE
- Although not specifically directed to construction industry operations, this discussion will help you comply with OSHA’s general PPE requirements for the construction industry (see 29 CFR 1926.28)
- Consult the OSHA standards for specific requirements concerning selection and use of PPE
They also provide lists of questions you need to answer to help define the risks and hazards so you can select the proper PPE, including the following:
PPE for the Foot
Questions to Answer
Might tools, heavy equipment, or other objects roll, fall onto, or strike your employees’ feet?
Construction, plumbing, smithing, building maintenance, trenching, utility work, grass cutting, etc.
Do your employees work with or near exposed electrical wiring or components?
Building maintenance; utility work; construction; wiring; work on or near communications, computer, or other high tech equipment; arc or resistance welding; etc.
Do your employees handle, or work near employees who handle, molten metal?
Welding, foundry work, casting, smithing, etc.
Do your employees work with explosives or in explosive atmospheres?
Demolition, explosives manufacturing, grain milling, spray painting, abrasive blasting, work with highly flammable materials, etc.
Be sure to also refer to the ATSM Standards (incorporating the former ANSI Standards information, from ANSI Z41-1991 and ANSI Z41-19).
Selecting the Right Safety Toe
In my opinon, your choice of safety footwear should be driven almost entirely by two main factors:
- The legislation, standards, and regulations that apply to your industry and workplace
- Wearability and comfort of the user
Most safety toes are made of steel, aluminum, or a composite material like carbon fiber. There are some advantages and drawbacks to each of these options.
Steel Toe Pros:
- Excellent design features for both protection and comfort, including vent design features
- Comfort strips and inner toe shells for additional top of foot and toe comfort
- Not as visible and can be integrated into more fashionable footwear
- Asymmetrical design of the toe caps allows a better fit for the feet and toes
Steel Toe Cons:
- Steel may transfer cold and heat
- Rigid, with no give or flex
Aluminum Toe Pros:
- Lightest safety toe option
- Least bulky
Aluminum Toe Cons:
- Most expensive
Composite and Carbon Fiber Pros:
- Lighter and may be a bit more flexible
- Can be tested and approved for use where electrical hazards are present
- May be better for hot or cold environments
Composite and Carbon Fiber Cons:
- Bulkier, which may make walking a bit more difficult
- More obviously a safety toed footwear
There is also another option. If you're not required to wear a safety toe but still want some additional protection, you can get shoes or boots with a soft toe (as long as your employer approves of it). A soft toe provides some additional protection (though not equivalent to the protection of a steel or composite toe) without the drawbacks.
(Learn more about these options in Safety Toes: An Overview of the Materials That Keep Your Feet Safe.)
Now that you know more about these options, you can decide which is best for a given task.
Need to drive around and go in and out of vehicles all day? Go for an aluminum toe.
Are you fashion conscious? Steel is the least conspicuous option.
Do you work at an airport and have to step through metal detectors during your shift? Non-magnetic composite toes won't set them off.
Deal with electrical hazards? Get a composite toe.
If you handle heavy, solid materials, packages, or tools every day, steel is your best choice.
Other Features Matter, Too
Safety toes are just one feature of your protective footwear. Taking the time to choose the right safety toe is a good move, but you also have to consider:
- Foot and ankle support
- Puncture resistant soles
- Metatarsal protection
- Non-magnetic properties and electrical protection
- Sole material
- Heel and tread design
Make your selection based on the work being done and the legislation in your jurisdiction, and always consult manufacturers and distributors.
Written by Henry Skjerven
Mr. Skjerven has consulted professionally for over 27 years, with extensive Canadian experience, literally from coast to coast but with a home base in Western Canada. His experience ranges from marketing, adult education, and heavy transportation (rail) to municipal public works, fleet and transportation, oil and gas construction in the tar sands, emergency response (Fire and Ambulance), Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Security, as well as human resources and software systems, including enterprise style projects.
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