When it comes to personal protective equipment, footwear deserves a good deal of attention. From sharp or pointed objects and falling materials to uneven walking surfaces and exposure to corrosive substances, there are many different hazards that can affect the feet. And since protection is often the name of the game, it’s all too easy for comfort to be overlooked.
In this article, we’re going to look at why it's important to consider comfort when selecting work boots, not just the level of protection they offer. We’ll help you understand why comfortable boots are necessary, provide some tips to help you find the right fit when trying on boots, and offer some troubleshooting for common problems that workers encounter with their work boots.
Why You Need Comfortable Work Boots
Safety boots are protective, but they don't always provide enough support and comfort for workers. And when you’re spending all day in these boots, you want to make sure they feel good and fit you well.
Brad Sonnema, president of the Canadian Podiatric Medical Association, notes that they see many instances of plantar fasciitis in workers, an inflammation of the tissue along the bottom of the foot that connects the heel bone to the toes. “If you look at the inside, they tend to be quite flat,” he says. “So you’re on your feet all day and you need that little extra support for whatever reason but you don’t have it, then the plantar fascia will start to take up a lot of stress.”
Footwear that provides too little support or doesn't fit properly can also contribute to a host of other problems that may increase absenteeism and workers’ compensation claims. These include:
- Bunions — swollen and tender enlargement at the base of the big toe caused by misalignment of the joint
- Blisters — painful, fluid-filled lesions generally caused by friction and pressure from poorly fitting shoes or excessive moisture
- Calluses/corns — build-up of skin on the points of pressure
- Neuromas — a benign growth of nerve tissue that can result in pain, burning, tingling, or numbness between the affected toes and in the ball of the foot
- Inflammation and muscle fatigue
- General pain — often in the ankles, knees, back, hips, and neck
But the pain and potential for musculoskeletal disorders are just one part of the issue. Uncomfortable footwear (and the resulting foot problems) can cause significant distraction for workers, which means they are focused on the pain or discomfort in their feet rather than on the task at hand. This is a serious safety concern that can lead to a spike in injuries.
(Learn about the Risk Factors for Developing Musculoskeletal Injuries.)
Finding the Right Fit
Finding the right fit for your work boots isn't just about knowing your shoe size. There’s a little more to it than that — and most people don’t even know their actual shoe size!
The first step in finding the right fit for work boots should be to measure your foot size. It’s not uncommon for one foot to be slightly bigger than the other, and in this case you should always go with the larger size. It’s also best to measure your foot around mid-afternoon, since feet tend to swell as the day goes on. You don’t want to purchase shoes that fit in the morning and are too tight by the end of the shift.
When you try on footwear, wear the socks you will normally wear to work and be sure to lace the boots up properly on both feet. Boots that feel comfortable when unlaced can feel completely different once they're done up. Tying your boots properly will prevent you from tripping over loose laces and will help keep your heel firmly in place.
Here’s how to do it:
- When lacing up the boots, do not cross the top two eyelets or hooks — instead, lace those ones vertically.
- Cross over and "sew" the lace under the vertical lace. Repeat on the other side.
- Pull the ends towards your toes to tighten them, and then begin a normal knot.
- Finish tying with a standard bow.
Once you have the boots on, consider the following to determine how well they fit:
- Is there a bit of space (about half an inch) between your big toe and the end of the boot?
- Can you comfortably put your index finger down the back of the boot when standing?
- When you walk around, is it comfortable? Does your heel lift or does the boot grip it firmly? Is it too tight or too loose around the ankle?
- Is the sole firm enough to provide the necessary stability?
- Is the lining padded?
Solutions to Common Work Boot Problems
Everyone loves their old, comfortable, worn-in boots, but they'll have to be replaced regularly to ensure continued protection.
(Find out How to Care for Your Work Boots.)
But new boots can mean new problems. Here are some of the most common ones, along with tips for how to handle them.
To break in your new pair of boots, wear them around the house for about 10 minutes per day and gradually increase the duration. You can also apply leather conditioner to help gently moisten the material
Do not submerge your new boots in water. In addition to making them uncomfortable to walk in, the moisture can warp the leather and make them unwearable. Also refrain from applying direct heat, which can dry them out and even cause cracking.
The key to preventing blisters is ensuring a firm fit around the heel. Blisters tend to form when the heel slips, a motion that can also cause you to wear through the heel counter and wear out the boots prematurely.
If your heels are rubbing against the back of the boot while you're breaking them in at home, you might need to revisit the fit.
Sweaty boots are uncomfortable and can start to smell. If you’re working in a warmer environment or know your feet tend to sweat, be sure to consider breathability when purchasing your work boots.
Look for a moisture-wicking lining and boots made of lightly finished full-grain leather (yellow leather), which is more breathable. Avoid synthetic leathers, since these block air flow.
You’ll also want to consider what kind of socks you wear with the boots. Materials with moisture-wicking properties, like merino wool blended with nylon and acrylic, are your best option.
If you’re working in cold environments, you want boots that will keep your feet warm and dry. Look for ones with insulation and pair them with wool socks.
If you’re working in warmer environments, focus on finding breathable boots that allow good airflow.
If you work in both extremes, you might need to pairs of boots: a heavier pair for the winter and lighter boots for the spring and summer.
Work boots are designed to offer maximum protection to the feet, but it’s important not to forget about comfort. You’ll be wearing these boots day in and day out, so it’s essential that they provide adequate support and fit well enough to prevent blisters and other foot problems.