Slips and trips are the cause of many falls at the same level (and some falls from height, too). Workplaces have a number of measures in place to minimize this hazard, such as routing cables overhead, proper lighting, and good housekeeping practices. (See Jobsite Housekeeping 101 to learn more.)

One of the most common and important control measures for slips and trips, however, has nothing to do with the design of the workplace and it seems to be discussed less often. It's the footwear workers walk around in.

The Right Safety Footwear Makes a Big Difference

Safety shoes and boots are one of the most common types of personal protective equipment (PPE). Most of us working in commercial, industrial, or construction sectors have to wear them every time we step foot on the worksite. But while most PPE is supplied by the employer, footwear is generally selected and purchased by the employee.

That puts employers and safety professionals in a difficult place. They aren't selecting the safety shoes and boots their workers wear, but they also need to make sure that it's the right type for the work they're doing.

To help employees buy the right type of footwear, workplaces often supply them with guidelines and recommendations. This guidance, however, tends to be focused on more obvious safety factors like impact resistance, electrical resistance, or penetration. These are incredibly important, of course, but slipping and tripping need to be given attention as well. In fact, according to the National Floor Safety Institute (NSFI), slips and trips are the main driver for lost time injuries in the workplace and a frequent cause for fatalities.

While trips can be caused by both subjective and objective causes (wearing the wrong size of shoes vs. tripping on an obstacle), slipping generally results from objective causes, when the sole of our shoes can’t maintain contact with the walking surface.

How to Select the Right Footwear to Reduce Tripping

When choosing safety footwear, here are the most important things to consider to avoid tripping.

Ensure Proper Fit

We usually have a good spatial awareness of where our limbs and extremities are, but we have a harder time assessing how far our PPE extends. Just think of how often gloves get caught in moving drills and saws because workers keep their hands at a safe distance but forget that their glove isn't. (See Top 5 Warnings for Caught-On and Caught-in-Between Hazards to learn more.)

The same applies to safety footwear. The larger the shoe is compared to our foot, the higher our chances of misjudging the clearance over obstacles and, therefore, the higher our chances of tripping.

According to Business Insider, 80% of men buy shoes in the wrong size, so it's a problem worth addressing with your workers. They should be made aware of the risk so they're not tempted to buy a boot that's one size up because they want to wear extra socks in the winter or borrow their brother's boots even though they're a different size.

Go with Lighter Footwear (When Appropriate)

When multiple options offer the same degree of protection, it's best to select lighter footwear to minimize fatigue.

The weight of a safety boot might not seem like the kind of thing that would make a big difference, but near the end of the shift when workers are trying to clear the same obstacle they've stepped over 20 times that day, they might be surprised to find out (often half a second too late) that their leg didn't lift from the floor as easily as it had earlier in the day.

Boots Over Shoes

In an environment where tripping is a concern, a boot is a better choice than a low-cut shoe. Many accidents and injuries happen when we try to readjust our position after tripping, and a boot (provided the laces are tied) will provide additional stability to the ankle, which will minimize the risk of ankle injury when you put pressure on your foot or leg to maintain your position.

Of course, this isn't always a choice. The type of footwear you need is often dictated by the type of work being performed. But when workers have a choice, encourage them to choose boots.

Consider Laceless Options

Footwear that is tightly laced normally doesn't cause an issue, but getting laceless boots or shoes can reduce the risk of tripping.

Choosing Slip-Resistant Footwear

When looking for slip-resistant footwear, consider the following.

Look for Certified Slip-Resistance

Make sure the shoe or boot you're buying is branded as slip-resistant. This might seem painfully obvious, but not all brands advertising a slip-resistant boot actually make the claim based on a nationally recognized standard.

Specifically, look for brands that are certified ASTM F2913, now up to its 2019 revision. This will ensure that the slip-resistant claim is backed by rigorous testing.

Match the Footwear to the Walking Surface

The non-slip properties of safety shoes are expressed in relation to a specific walking surface. Make sure the footwear's anti-slip properties will actually provide additional traction on the types of surfaces in your workplace.

This is an important consideration for icy and snowy surfaces. Not all slip-resistance will provide proper traction and grip on snow and ice.

Ask the vendor or manufacturer to what surface the slip resistance claim of the boot’s sole is made. Tests are most commonly done on three conditions:

  • Dry
  • Wet
  • Hi Soil Oily/Wet

Ratings are then given based on a coefficient of friction, varying from 0 to 1.

If you're considering a safety boot for outdoor work, for example, and it has a coefficient of friction of 1 for Dry conditions but only 0.2 for Hi Soil Oily/Wet, you should look for another boot. The boot may work perfectly well on dry surfaces, but outdoor work means a chance of encountering wet or muddy surfaces.

Oil Resistance Is Not Slip Resistance

Don't mistake the Oil Resistant designation for the Slip Resistance one. Oil resistant soles are designed to withstand contact with oils but not necessarily to prevent slips on oily surfaces.

If your workplace has the potential for contact with oily surfaces, the footwear needs a sole that is both oil resistant and slip resistant.

Check the Tread

While no specific tread pattern is better than any other, one that has fairly deep treads will do a better job of channeling out water, oil, or mud, which will generally give it better traction. However, for some wet or oily surfaces (like the ones encountered in the service and food processing industries) multiple narrow channels provides superior traction.

If you’re not sure which kind of tread is best suited for the slipping hazards in your workplace, consult the manufacturer.

As the tread wears out, the performance declines. So, it is possible for shallower treads to wear out more quickly compared to deep, lug outsoles. I recommend paying attention to how much tread you have left because your footwear's performance will decline significantly as the treads wear down from heavy use.

Choose the Right Footwear

There is no single kind of footwear that is best under all conditions. So, carefully assess the conditions on your worksite and select the safety shoes or boots that will perform best under them.