I spent many years in retail footwear and was mentored by some of the greats in fit before I came to the safety business. I had plenty of people tell me, “safety shoes fit differently than regular shoes, so you will have to get used to that.” Many customers would say, “I’m a size 10 in my regular shoes, but I have to wear a wider size for my safety shoes so I have more room.” That was the first myth. Footwear is footwear. And fit is fit. The principles of fitting an athletic or casual shoe are the same as a safety shoe. A western boot fits the same whether it has a safety toe cap in the front or not. If you know how to fit that is.
The truth is, 80% of workers are wearing the wrong shoe size. It’s not their fault. No one has ever fit them properly or even educated them on proper fit. Too many boots are purchased at places that sell tons of other items well beyond footwear or from a lifestyle retail store that has some “safety” shoes in a small corner of the store.
This lack of education on fit is what is causing so many problems with feet today. And that brings us to the second myth – “my feet hurt because I wear safety shoes.” Too many workers have accepted pain and discomfort in their feet, knees and back because the profession they chose requires them to wear safety shoes. At least that is what they tell themselves.
The number one cause of pain and discomfort in feet? Wearing the wrong shoe size. Too many workers go wider as they age trying to get more room, when the reality is they should be going longer. Many workers get caught up in the “number” of a shoe size instead of the most important part of fit – making sure the widest part of the foot is in the widest part of the boot.
But to understand how to fit a safety shoe properly, you need to understand how shoes are made.
Understanding Shoe Sizes
Because shoe fitting involves so many variables, it is critical to have a basic understanding of shoe and foot sizes—or more accurately, the differences between these sizes.
Feet come in an unlimited variety of configurations. Shapes, toe length, ball length and width (the only measurements we are prepared to take at the present time) vary. Circumferential measurements all over the foot are continually changing as a person moves into different positions. The bones and muscles making up the foot can vary in length, thickness and function with each individual. So the components and movements create a never-ending combination.
Added to the personal traits of each foot are changes that occur with different activities as simple as sitting, standing, climbing in and out of a forklift or lifting boxes. It stands to reason that the foot is going to change with the different job functions, activities and terrains we expect them to respond to. It is a known fact that feet fluctuate in size every day.
In addition to weight change or age, your feet likely will change due to activity. In a work environment, you might have a job standing at a conveyor all day or you might have a job sitting at a desk or you might have a job climbing up and down a ladder. In all of these instances, the impact on your feet are very different.
When standing, you place 2 to 3 times your bodyweight in pressure on your foot. While walking that becomes 3 to 5 times your bodyweight. So for a 200lb man, that means he is putting up to 1,000 lbs of pressure on his feet every stride.
Now, imagine that same 200lb man carrying a big box of materials and you can see that downforce grow even higher. This downforce can cause your feet to splay or widen on impact. The shoes have to take this into account for proper fit. (It’s also why anti-fatigue insoles make such a big difference on the job.)
The bottom line is that shoe fitting is equal parts art and science. While there is definitely science involved in the manufacture of the shoes, the need for a shoe fitting expert to translate the “last” of the shoe to the shape of your foot is priceless. And this cannot be done with a computer or without a person who has extensive training in fitting safety shoes.
The “Last” Word
So, why is fit so hard? Why do I have more than one size of shoes in my closet? Why am I a different size in one shoe versus another when it is the same brand? Now these are great questions and the ones your employees are asking.
Shoes are made over a “last” or generic shape of the foot. Lasts are produced to the specifications of the manufacturer of the shoes. Meaning that a manufacturer or vendor designs the last to work best with certain shapes of feet. Sometimes they use very broad characteristics in the last and sometimes more specific.
Each different vendor (i.e. Justin, Wolverine, Reebok, etc.) designs their lasts to meet a certain shape of foot. They do this to have a competitive advantage over one another. In addition, how the manufacturer determines size is based on their last design. So one vendor may call their last a size 10 and another designate their last a size 11 – when they actually fit the same! In addition, a size 12 in one safety shoe may fit differently than a size 12 in another safety shoe. So even in the same vendor, the lasts will vary.
Much of this occurs because the manufacturers use different factories for their shoes. Justin Work for example, still makes many styles in the US. But they also have styles made in China. And the lasts in China are not exactly the same as the ones in the US plant. Therefore, there are differences in fit. Not picking on Justin, after all, they still provide lots of jobs in the US with their factories here when most do not. But this fact is true of most brands.
In developing a last, there are a variety of measurements taken into consideration over and above the ones that we are able to measure (toe length, ball length and ball width). These include measurements like waist, ball, instep girth, throat opening, and the last ball break point. (I know, what was that last one!?) The list goes on, but the point is, each last has its own individual combination of measurements that the vendor hopes will proportionally fit a certain demographic of people.
Some vendors just shoot for the middle and try to fit as many people as possible. Since the last determines the shape and profile of the shoe, the first step is to match the shape of the foot and proper last proportionally as closely as possible while realizing that many other factors are going to affect the fit. For example, size is affected by style, patterns, and construction.
Another big consideration in safety is for women. Most vendors will simply take their shoes and “shrink it and pink it.” This means they take the mens shoe and produce it in smaller sizes with a dash of pink along the collar to make it “pretty” for women. The problem with this approach? Women’s feet are very different from mens!
Women have the hardest time with fit in safety shoes and this is the main reason why. Very few styles are available on a woman’s last. This is what we created the Tegopro brand of safety shoes so that we could control the last and fit and make sure we had women’s shoes made on a woman’s last and not just a men’s shoe made in a smaller size. At this point, through our constant complaining, some vendors, like Hytest, are waking up to this fact and starting to produce some shoes built on a last in the shape of a woman’s foot.
So, the bottom line is this – your safety shoes can keep you more than just safe; they can keep you comfortable and pain-free as well. But that all begins with having the right fit. And that comes from working with people who understand and know fit.
About the Author
Dr. Matthew Hudson is the CXO (Chief Experience Officer) of Work Wear Safety Shoes based in Fort Worth, Texas. He has over 36 years in retail, most in footwear, and is a member of the ASTM F-30 committee on safety footwear. Work Wear Safety Shoes is in its 40th year of business with locations in Texas, Arkansa, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. You can learn how to make your work experience pain-free at workwearsafe.com