Safety Toes: An Overview of the Materials That Keep Your Feet Safe
Soft safety toes are available on the market, but they don't meet the impact and compression requirements that are required for steel, aluminum, and composite toes.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the last line of defense between a worker and a known hazard. Most people are familiar with the safety shoes and work boots that protect many worker's feet, but not everyone knows a whole lot about the safety toes that provide the additional protection needed for many jobs.
In this article, we'll take a look at these unsung heroes of foot protection, go over the different types of materials they're made from, and provide a quick overview of how to select the right safety toe for the job.
Your Toes Deserve Protection
You may not be aware of it, but your toes do a lot of work. They help you maintain your balance, keep a good posture, and walk effortlessly. All this involves bones, muscles, and joints that can be injured, damaged, or destroyed by workplace accidents.
While any part of your body can get hurt on the job, the position of the toes makes them particularly vulnerable to a variety of hazards, including dropped objects and crushing injuries. The more of your shift is spent standing, walking, or climbing, the more frequently your toes will be exposed to hazards. And of course, the more time you need to spend on your feet for work, the bigger the problem it will cause if one or more of your toes sustains a serious injury.
Those injuries are a problem for employers, too. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that “some 60,000 foot injuries are responsible for keeping people from work every year. The average cost of one of these injuries with lost workdays is $9,600, and 80 percent of foot injuries are caused by objects that weigh 30 pounds or less”.
Safety Toe Materials – How Your Safety Footwear Protects You
To keep your toes safe, many safety shoes and work boots come equipped with a safety toe that encapsulates your toes with a protective material. To be effective, these safety toes must meet the ASTM F2412-18/ASTM F2413-18 impact and compression safety standards. Meeting the I/75 standards and C/75 compression standards means the safety toe can withstand having 50 solid pounds of weight dropped on them from a height of 18 inches, and withstand 2,500 pounds of compression.
Here are the basic materials your safety footwear manufacturer might use to create a safety toe that meets these standards.
The steel toe is a classic piece of personal protective equipment that has some real staying power. It has been around for so long that the term "steel toed boot" is a shorthand many people use for footwear with toe caps made from any type of material.
Steel toes are made of lighter steels that have met the appropriate testing requirements. That steel is either fashioned into an exterior toe guard or overshoe, or built into the footwear as an interior component. A steel toe might also have other design features, including rubber comfort linings and comfort strips that provide additional protection from the edges and interior of the toe box.
The steel toe's long history comes with some baggage. Over the decades, it has acquired a reputation for being hot, heavy, and uncomfortable to walk in all day. Some people also believe that they can convey cold to the feet, making them unsuitable for extremely cold environments.
These criticisms are overblown. They may have been true of older steel toed footwear, but these issues have largely been overcome. Modern, state-of-the-art steel toes are lighter, built for comfort, and do not compromise the safety of the wearer.
Aluminum Toe Caps
Despite the name, aluminum toe caps do not have to be built entirely of aluminum. Toe caps made from a high-grade alloy that has aluminum as one of its major components still fall under this category.
Like steel toes, they can also be built directly into the footwear or be slipped over the exterior as an overshoe or toe guard. In either case, it is often used as an alternative to steel toe caps since it is up to 35% lighter, transfers less heat and cold, and remains comfortable even if the wearer is on their feet for an entire work shift. The material is also more malleable and less bulky, allowing for a more discreet toe box.
Composite Safety Toes
As the name implies, composite safety toes are made up of several different kinds of materials. They may include, among others:
Regardless of the composition, all composite safety toes must meet the same testing requirements.
The materials used in these safety toes does make them bulkier and more visible, which can make the footwear less stylish. That bulkiness also comes with some additional weight. While composite toes are up to 15% lighter than steel toes, they are typically heavier than aluminum ones.
The biggest advantage to a composite toe is that it is made of non-metallic and non-magnetic materials. That means they won't set off a metal detector, which is great for anyone who has to step through one regularly as part of their job, like airport security staff. It also won't transfer heat or cold the way metal does, which makes them better suited for extreme temperature environments.
(Learn more about Indoor Temperature Control)
Unlike the other options we've covered so far, soft toes do not provide any impact protection. While they're nothing like the steel toes people associate with safety toes, they still fall under the category because they keep the toes safe from hazards that regular shoes won't protect against.
Soft toes are covered by the ATSM F2892-18 EH Standard, which specifies four types of protection they can provide:
- Conductive properties that reduce the risks associated with static buildup, including igniting explosives and volatile chemicals
- Electrical resistance to protect the wearer if they step on a live electrical wire
- Static dissipation
- Puncture resistance
When to Replace Safety Toes
Safety shoes and boots need to be replaced if the safety toe has been subject to heavy impact.
In the case of steel and aluminum toes, the resulting damage will be obvious. The impact will cause them to dent, along with the leather that is glued to the safety toe.
Composite toes, however, won't always give you such an obvious clue that they've been damaged. Rather than dent, the impact might create cracks in the material that are not visible on the surface. Although the damage is not readily visible, it is enough to compromise its safety and effectiveness. So, always replace safety footwear with composite toes if they've been subjected to impact, even if they still pass a visual inspection.
Selecting the Right Safety Toe
The type of safety toe you need is going to depend on several factors, such as:
- The regulations in the jurisdiction where they will be used
- The rules and requirements set by the employer and the company's safety program
- Environmental conditions the wearer might encounter on the job
- The nature of the work (for instance, airport workers needing non-metallic safety toes)
- Style, fit, comfort, and wearability
- Serviceability, life cycle and wear, maintenance, care, and cleaning
It's also worth consulting manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers. They are a must-use resource for today's safety professional. Tell them about your hazard analysis and the risks to your workers' toes. They'll be able to help you choose the most suitable material.
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