Preventing back injuries with footwear

According to the National Safety Council's "Injury Facts," 270,890 back injuries among workers resulted in days away from work in 2006, accounting for more than 22 percent of all work-related injuries that year. What role can protective footwear play in minimizing the potential occurrence of back or other serious injuries?

Answered by Bob McCarthy, senior manager, product marketing, Timberland PRO, Stratham, NH.

This statistic is astounding, but it's not that surprising. Preventing back injuries is a major workplace safety challenge. In addition to the effects on the individual – pain, suffering and days away from work – back injuries account for one-fourth of all compensation indemnity claims, costing employers billions of dollars per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While no single approach has been found to eliminate back injuries, they can be minimized, and selection and use of proper footwear can play an essential role.

Few things have such a dramatic impact on a person's overall health and well-being as their feet, as problems that begin here often spread to other areas – including the back. For those in manufacturing, warehousing and construction, the constant pressure of working long hours on a hard, unforgiving surface can contribute to a variety of problems – most notably, fatigue. The body needs to work harder to compensate for the lack of support, which makes the muscles tired and the body more exhausted. The effects are exacerbated when the worker has to exert force or complete a repetitive motion over a long period of time.

While safety managers have had access to helpful aids such as anti-fatigue mats and ergonomic safety devices, only recently have the benefits of anti-fatigue technology been found within protective footwear. Beyond just comfort, look for footwear that offers "standing tolerance." This is the ability of the under-foot "chassis" to provide both shock absorption and energy return, which, to the user, means better cushioning and support. Anti-fatigue solutions are available for various applications. Some styles are lightweight and feature soles that are designed with fluid-channeling, high surface contact for cement or epoxy flooring.

Before making the investment in work footwear, as an employer or an employee, examine the specific job and what that worker needs to be safe, successful and comfortable. Consider other potential risks:

  • Slips: Slips and falls are common causes of injury in the workplace. Footwear choice can help minimize this risk with anti-slip soles and specific sole tread designs and compounds, which determine the shoe's ability to maximize the coefficient of friction and expel fluids or contaminants. Micro-lug patterns (tiny lugs) with multiple leading edges can provide good slip resistance on smooth surfaces, while a "toothy" lug pattern is best for rugged outdoor conditions.
  • Falling objects: Employees are at risk from falling objects whenever overhead work is being performed. Danger is especially high with activities such as pushing, pulling or prying, as objects may become airborne. Look for shoes that offer safety toes and, in more extreme environments, metatarsal protection.

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