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Non-steel toecap’s protection in doubt

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THE apparently humble toecap has become a source of major contention within industry. While non-steel toecaps satisfy the requirements of safety standards, boot manufacturer Blundstone argues both the standards and the caps are inadequate.

Brian Cohen, market development manager with Blundstone, recommends “buyer beware” for manufacturers considering safety boots with non-steel caps that are advertised as conforming to standards. “Buyer beware, because the current Australian/NZ standards do not cover penetration and cut resistance,” Cohen told Manufacturers Monthly.

Blundstone’s internal testing, he says, supports his concern about materials used in caps other than steel. “For example, if a user miscues with a nail-gun, the alloy or aluminium toecaps provide little or no resistance at all. But steel does.

“Also, if a cutting tool is dropped on a toecap, steel provides protection while alloy or aluminium don’t. We’ve done the tests and told our customers they need to be careful.”

Cohen says despite the absence of standards restricting companies from marketing safety footwear that doesn’t have penetration and cut resistance, the employer may still be liable if someone is seriously injured. “An employer could find themselves in trouble if they knew these issues were there and elected to ignore them.”

Cohen says that Blundstone has been accused of raising these concerns simply because they do not market the alternatives but he is firm these are not Blundstone’s motivations. “We could very quickly start using alternatives to steel but have elected not to because of these safety issues.”

Factors like weight are used as justification for alternatives (alloy and plastic caps are roughly 40% lighter than steel) to suit a range of applications.

The right steps to take

NSW WorkCover spokesperson John Kirby suggests regulations are intended to allow for a multitude of possibilities, including a justifiable preference for lighter boots in certain circumstances, such as a job requiring a climb into an awkward space but not the strength of a steel cap.

Kate Evans, spokesperson for Standards Australia, explains that the body now adopts international (ISO) standards in the field of occupational protective footwear, and is planning to adopt the latest ISO standards shortly. “These are specifications based on performance, and are not intended to be design restrictive.

“Recently, the use of non-traditional materials has initiated discussion about whether other tests such as ‘penetration and cut resistance’ need to be added to the specifications.

“If such tests were to be developed, they would need to consider not only whether they approximate a hazard such as a staple gun, but what part of the footwear should be tested. The toecap is only a small part of the whole boot, and if staple guns are a hazard, how is the wearer protected elsewhere on the body? Currently, no such proposal for a test/s is before Standards Australia's Occupational Protective Footwear Committee, SF-003.

“If people feel strongly that the newer toecap materials do not provide sufficient protection against some hazards, a wording to that effect may be included in the code of practice for the selection and care of protective footwear. A draft revision of AS/NZS 2210.1 is due out for public comment later on this year,” Evans said.

The current standard requires an impact/compression test on toes from which a rating is determined. The toecap has to withstand a weight of approximately 20kg dropped from waist height and the compression force of about 1500kN of something either rolling over or squashing it.

Kirby says WorkCover does not specify one sort of cap or another. He believes the standard opens hazard-prevention to debate and the suitability of equipment like safety boots should be a subject of discussion. “Steel toecaps can be very uncomfortable, for example, and that is an issue that has to be resolved between the worker and the employer. In certain circumstances steel-capped boots are justifiable, in other circumstances a lighter form of cap may be preferable.”

However, Cohen would like to see more information on the issue. He says present marketing either focuses too heavily on the weight of alternatives, with no evidence to suggest a well made steel capped boot is less comfortable than a poorly made boot with a cap of another material.

Whatever the argument, the underlying message is that manufacturers need to take seriously their responsibility for workers safety, to understand the hazards of their workplace and the concerns of their employees.

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