Climbing New Heights in Material Innovation for Safety Footwear
Sponsored by BASF
Workers’ safety shoes have come a long way since the days wooden clogs were used.
For workers across numerous industries – be it automotive, logistics, manufacturing, food, health care and so on – safety toe shoes have transitioned from heavy natural materials to more lightweight, yet robust, synthetics. They’ve also gone from clunky utilitarian to a more sports-casual look – enabling workers to wear the same pair of shoes comfortably (and potentially stylishly) in and outside of the workplace, a timesaving convenience.
This trend to incorporate style and ergonomic comfort without compromising on safety and functionality has been made possible through the innovative use of new high-performance synthetic materials that have come on the market successively over the years.
More significantly, continuing advancements in materials technology means footwear designers now have the means to create shoes that don’t just provide workplace safety, but also reduce fatigue and repetitive strain or joint stress injuries. These developments can help improve the quality of work life and save on lost downtime.
A new material invented in 2006
An instance of an advanced technology material that lends itself to these improvements is expanded thermoplastic polyurethane (E-TPU). This comprises small, lightweight beads of synthetic material blown up, like popcorn, and molded together. Invented in 2006 by German chemical innovators BASF, the advanced material, which is commercially known as Infinergy, uniquely combines several properties that are rarely found together: It’s both supersoft like a foam, yet ultra-springy (like rubber, but significantly more bouncy and lighter in weight). The compression technology characteristic of E-TPU provides unparalleled and durable shock absorption.
Incorporated in safety shoe design, the material with these qualities provides not only optimal and constant cushioning underfoot, protecting against spinal and joint stress, it also crucially provides a useful rebound boost of around 55% of the energy back to the wearer with each step taken, helping reduce fatigue. Wearers are thereby empowered to work safely, comfortably and agilely on their feet throughout the day, without getting footsore or backaches.
E-TPU is highly robust and retains its performance qualities even in extreme heat or cold. It stays elastic down to minus-4° F. This allows the safety footwear to last for years, remaining comfortable and protective (including against joint stress and fatigue) even throughout constant use in cold rooms and across the widest range of environments.
Originally used to revolutionize running shoes
This material technology was in fact originally used in running shoes to enhance athletes’ performance and safety – it’s even said to have revolutionized the running experience.
These advances in technology now underpin the award-winning design and technology of South America’s leading safety shoe manufacturer, Maincal. The company’s flagship safety shoe model, which incorporates E-TPU compression technology, received the international “Best in Show” award at the 2019 NSC Safety Congress & Expo – an annual event that brings together leaders in the field of industrial safety in the United States.
Empowering users to make sustainable choices
Importantly, Infinergy has been formulated to have the lowest possible environmental impact. The material is bisphenol A-free (thus, nontoxic), can be created using bio-based raw materials and can be molded using low-temperature (and thereby low-energy and low-emission) processes.
Because the material is so durable – able to retain its integrity and performance for years – products such as your favourite sports shoes, safety work boots or dress shoes made with Infinergy can continue to give you comfortable service without further expense for a long time.
Moreover, at the end of its use, Infinergy E-TPU can be fully recycled and regenerated to its original high-performance qualities – enabling it to contribute to a circular economy geared to reducing, reusing and recycling.
The future of safety footwear
We may well see more safety shoes incorporating sustainable high-performance technology in future.
The more that advanced materials can add value to safety shoes – such as fatigue reduction and other worker-performance and quality-of-life enhancing aspects, moreover in a sustainable way – the more likely there will be a demand for it and, indeed, an expectation of it.
Currently, a material such as Infinergy E-TPU provides an exciting blank canvas for such innovation.