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Big strides: protective and safety footwear
Feature: 3/8/2006

Enlarge Image click hereStruck by weights, scorched by heat, covered in oil, scratched, scuffed and knocked about; all in all, the role of protective and safety footwear is hardly glamorous. But what the humble safety boot and shoe lack in allure, they more than make up for in importance.

Whether the threat is from flames, wet surfaces, rusty nails or falling chunks of concrete, they ensure that their wearers remain fully protected - and with health and safety legislation constantly being revised and tightened, that's never been more important.

But just as health and safety laws have grown more complex, so too have the methods of achieving them.


Plastic: your inflexible friend
Take the toecap, for example; for decades, steel-toed footwear has been synonymous with manual labour, protecting the wearer from Enlarge Image click herehorrendous crushing accidents that can occur in such jobs. But now this old but reliable form of armour is slowly being usurped by new and surprising technology.

Ron Page is the technical director for Totectors, a company with many years of experience in the safety footwear sector and a comprehensive range that includes work boots, ladies' shoes and professional office footwear.

He said: "We're seeing a growing demand for non-metallic toecaps in safety footwear. They're generally made of injection moulded plastics or compression moulded glass reinforced composite materials, depending on the manufacturer, and have the advantage of being lighter than steel toecaps while offering the same level of protection.

"They also have the advantage of improved thermal properties. Being far less conductive to cold, composites retain their heat 50 percent longer than steel in cold climates and will not accumulate heat as quickly in hot conditions.

Also, because they're about 100 grams per pair lighter than steel caps, it means you're carrying less weight around with you all day."

The toecaps have proven particularly popular in airports and other places where metal detectors are in use - and although they are not made of metal, they still have to conform to the requirements of EN 12568 to be incorporated into safety footwear.

In very broad terms that means they can withstand a 20 kilogram weight being dropped on its edge from a metre in the air.

Capping it off
Of course, Totectors isn't the only company to offer plastic toecaps; Heathbrook Corporatewear, too, includes them in its expansive Enlarge Image click herefootwear range, which sits alongside the company's impressive workwear selection.

However, the company's sales director, Nick Greenfield, said that although the composite plastic technology has increased in popularity, businesses that offer it as part of their range have found one sticky problem.

He explained: "Because the composite cap is thicker than the steel cap, the sizing is slightly different and we've had to come up with completely new styles of footwear for the caps to be inserted into.

"Obviously, extremely small and large sizes of shoe or boot are difficult to get hold of as a result. I don't think anyone's produced a size two composite cap yet, but we have succeeded in acquiring a size 14 boot for a number of our customers."

Ron Page of Totectors added: "Non-metal toecaps of extreme sizes are currently difficult to get hold of because this is breaking technology and the investment required to make them is difficult to recoup through sales of such a niche item.

"However, this situation will obviously improve as composite materials become more mainstream."

But if you're working in an airport, all this clever plastic technology means nothing if the footwear has other metal elements in it.

That's why non-metal midsoles have also been developed. This involves inserting para-aramid fibres such as Kevlar into the soles, rather than metal plates, thus stopping sharp objects from piercing the soles of the footwear.

How to sell your sole
That's the protection from crushing and piercing sorted, then, but what about protection from slipping? When it comes to soles, many Enlarge Image click herecompanies offer three options: rubber, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) and dual-density polyurethane.

Rubber is the traditional sole of choice, of course, but tradition doesn't always mean much when performance is a key issue.

Nick Greenfield from Heathbrook said: "It's hard to get rubber to the right level of softness. If it's too soft it wears down quickly, but if it's too hard it doesn't give proper grip. By comparison, TPU is hard-wearing and is of the right consistency to grip well."

TPU also has the advantage of picking up every last detail of its mould, so that the cleats - the raised sections of the sole - retain the crisp edges that help give the footwear a good gripping properties and maximum moisture clearance.

However, rubber does have one advantage, and that's improved protection from heat; certain types of rubber can withstand contact with an object heated up to up to 300 degrees centigrade for one minute, compared to 160 degrees centigrade for one minute with TPU.

There are other sole technologies available. Totectors, for example, offers dual-density soles that combine a durable TPU outside layer with a spongy, air-bubble-filled polyurethane inside layer.

This lends the sole of the shoe - and particularly the heel - a trampoline effect that compresses to absorb the kinetic energy of the foot, then expands as the wearer lifts his or her heel to return the compressed energy - effectively putting a spring in their step.

Ireland-based Shoes for Crews Europe, meanwhile, offers something totally unique.

The company, whose parent organisation celebrates its 22nd birthday this year, specialises in non-slip footwear. In fact, it has honed its technology to such a point that, when independently tested by the UK's Health and Safety Executive, it easily beat every one of its competitors.

Nollette Callinan, marketing manager for Shoes for Crews, explained the secret of the company's success: "It's down to a combination of both material and structure," she said, "but it's mostly the material itself.

"It's a patented formula that makes the sole firm but highly flexible, so that when the wearer's foot makes contact with the floor, the heel grips and stretches, increasing friction between it and the floor.

"Also, the grid structure of our cleats cuts through liquids on the floor's surface, allowing the rubber to make direct contact with the floor."

Leather and laces
But just as important as ensuring the proper levels of protection is making sure that the wearer is comfortable.
Enlarge Image click here
After all, safety laws mean that employees are forced to wear protective footwear for several hours at a time, which means that any problems they may have with comfort will quickly become unbearable.

As a result then, it's important for the manufacturers to make sure that the tops of their footwear are just as carefully chosen as the soles.

That's where companies like WL Gore & Associates (UK) Limited come into the picture. The company is most famous for its durable, waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex fabrics, but its other products have been used in hundreds of different industries, including footwear.

Gore's main footwear laminate ranges are the High Performance Range (HPR) and Extended Comfort Range (Gore-Tex XCR fabrics).

The former is used for hardwearing footwear such as military boots, whereas XCR is used for footwear that needs improved breathability. But both share the same basic construction, being comprised of four layers.

The first layer is a woven textile that provides internal abrasion resistance for the movement of the foot, followed by a felt layer for insulation and moisture wicking.

The third layer is an expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE) material that provides waterproof protection and ensures breathability. The fourth layer is a knit that protects the interior layers from being damaged by the leather that forms the outer layer.

It's a complicated system, which is why Gore likes to monitor those that acquire the HPR and Gore licences.

David Storrie, Gore associate responsible for sales of workwear products in the UK, said: "Often companies sell the manufacturers a roll of liner and say get on with it, whereas we get involved in the construction of the boot to make sure it'll work properly.

"There's no point in us selling them a really good permeable membrane if the manufacturers don't use a permeable leather or non-permeable other components.

"For example, a lot of the breathability of the shoe is based on the glue that is used to put it together, so we keep an eye on that. We also look at the laces because if they wick moisture, they will allow wetness into the boot. We have to be very careful."

Stitched up
But according to Nick at Heathbrook, success in the safety shoe industry isn't just based on technological know-how - it's also based on Enlarge Image click herethe attractiveness of the product.

He explained: "In the last five years or so, there's been a growth in demand for footwear that doesn't look like traditional work shoes and boots. People want something a lot more stylish and a lot more pleasing to the eye.

"What's interesting, though, is that while most European wearers will buy footwear in bright colours, UK wearers are more conservative. We prefer black or white shoes."

Nollette from Shoes for Crews agreed. She said: "There isn't really a lot of demand outside of white and black shoes, but we're bringing in some colour to our black shoes using pink or blue stitching.

"It's about taking what you have and introducing something different; a twist. Some innovation is needed because I think people are fashion-conscious whether they're male or female and whether they pretend to be or not."

Stepping into the future
That's not the only trend that has been noticed. On an industry-wide scale, Danny Hemmings, sales director at Totectors believes there is Enlarge Image click herea shift in the general market for safety footwear, which needs to be reflected in the design of the products on offer.

He said: “Because of the decline in heavy industry and engineering in the UK, people are moving more towards assembly and service industries, where shoes can be designed to be lighter, technically innovative and more distinctive with a hint of fashion and colour.”

However, Nollette believes that there is still a market available in physical labour-intensive industries, if not heavy industry.

She said: "We've seen a huge growth in the manufacturing market as they realise how important non-slip footwear is, especially when they've realised how expensive injury claims and absenteeism due to accidents can be.

"In a lot of industries, it's a reactive approach rather than a proactive one. Companies are loath to pay out money that they don't have to, so you have to help them see the potential costs involved if they don't look into safety footwear."

The catering and nursing industries also hold great potential, for non-slip shoes if not toecapped ones. Shoes for Crews has plans to capitalise on them using a clever new technology.

Nollette said: "We're currently looking at an antibacterial compound that's been specially developed for Shoes for Crews that can be inoculated into the soles of our footwear to eliminate any bacteria that it comes into contact with.

"So take chefs, for example - their shoes are touching the floors of kitchens, hotel corridors and sometimes even the dining areas - and the one part of his clothing that's cross contaminating everything is his footwear.

"The compound will be built into the soles themselves so as long as the soles are there, they will still be effective."

For Ron from Totectors, technological advancements such as non-metallic components are the way of the future. He explained: "There are a lot of areas where these advancements are essential, but that's not the main reason these products are becoming popular - it's just that technology is moving on.”

"No matter what form of PPE you require, plastics and composites are becoming more and more important, and that's true everywhere you look."

Author: James Wilkinson
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