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What you need to know about safety footwear

This article was written by Mark Reilly, Utility Division Director of KEEN Inc. in the USA. It first appeared in ISN News, July 2013 and is summarised here with permission.

Laying a foundation for worker safety truly starts from the ground up. Many workers don't realise how important proper safety footwear is on the job.

At my company, we consider them another important tool – a tool for your feet that helps combat workplace hazards, discomfort, and fatigue.

The market is full of manufacturers introducing new boots, proprietary technologies, and the latest and greatest additions to the art of safety footwear. However, understanding what you need and knowing the terminologies to navigate this sea of work boots will help you to better find what will hopefully be your favourite pair of boots. After all, comfortable feet make the workday easier and let you focus on the real job at hand.

Know your needs

Understanding the various safety features in work boots is paramount to finding the right boot for your needs. Always start with your safety manager, foreperson, or human resources manager to determine if there are specific safety-gear requirements for your specific job or project.

Safety toes

The environment of a craftsman or industrial employee is often wrought with heavy hazards. Finding the right protective toe is, in part, preference. There are three types of protective toes – steel, composite, and aluminium. Often, workers will select a specific safety toe based on their working environment and needs.

Steel toes are the traditional choice for protective toecaps and are heaviest and most compact. While your feet aren't exposed to the steel insert, steel toes can conduct temperature more than alternative safety options. Footwear manufactures today have begun devising ways to improve fit and comfort of steel toes by using protective toecaps designed for the fit and size of the boot.

Aluminium toes offer another choice for lightweight protection. They are the thicker than steel toes and provide a great option for workers looking for the most lightweight choice in footwear.

Composite toes are typically comprised of carbon fibre, plastic, or kevlar. They are lighter than steel toes but are the thickest option for a safety toe and therefore have a bulkier silhouette than their steel or aluminum counterparts. Composite toes do not transfer cold or heat and since they are non-metallic, offer a great safety option for workers passing through metal detectors or working in an environment that needs to stay metal-free.

Metatarsal guards

Work boots with metatarsal guards help to protect the upper foot and toe area from heavy falling objects. This additional protection is also advantageous for welders or those working in environments where falling embers or hot materials may be a concern.


A number of durable materials on the market create outsoles that are longwearing, slip-resistant, and protective. While some industries may require a specific material, having an understanding of the options will help you make a more informed decision.

Fit matters

At the end of the workday, your feet should not be rubbed raw, squeezed tight, or sore with blisters and abrasions. Too-tight shoes can lead to a variety of foot ailments including in-grown toenails, blisters, corns, or worse. Additionally, the wrong fit may cause discomfort in the toe box from the safety toecap. A leather boot will stretch somewhat as it conforms to the shape of your foot, however, a steel toe will never stretch, so never purchase a pair of safety-toe boots with the idea that they will eventually break in and stretch out. Finding the right size boot is very important for all-day comfort. When trying on a boot, if it feels too snug, don't be afraid to move to a wide-width.

Occupational protective footwear standards

There are several standards relevant to occupational protective footwear in New Zealand. It is important to know the ones relevant to your situation.

The AS/NZS 2210 standard is a series and cited in regulations. They are listed below.

  • AS/NZS 2210.1:2010 Safety, protective and occupational footwear – Guide to selection, care and use. This document is cited in multiple documents:

    • Approved Code of Practice for Safety and Health in Arboriculture (2012)
    • Approved Code Of Practice For Safety And Health In Forest Operations (2012)
  • AS/NZS 2210.2:2009 Occupational protective footwear – Test methods. This document is cited in Approved Code Of Practice For Cranes
  • AS/NZS 2210.3:2009 Occupational protective footwear – Specification for safety footwear. This document is cited in multiple documents.

    • Approved Code Of Practice For Cranes
    • Best Practice Guidelines for Demolition in New Zealand
  • AS/NZS 2210.4:2009 Occupational protective footwear – Specification for protective footwear. This document is cited in Approved Code Of Practice For Cranes.
  • AS/NZS 2210.5:2009 Occupational protective footwear – Specification for occupational footwear

Other standards

  • AS/NZS 4821:2006 Protective footwear for firefighters – Requirements and test methods
  • ISO 13287:2012 Personal protective equipment – Footwear – Test method for slip resistance
  • ISO 17249:2004 Safety footwear with resistance to chain saw cutting
  • ISO 20345:2011 Personal protective equipment – Safety footwear
  • ISO 20346:2004 Personal protective equipment – Protective footwear
  • ISO 20347:2012 Personal protective equipment – Occupational footwear