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December 2017 – Study aims to improve safety footwear fit to reduce injuries

Researchers from the University of Wollongong (UoW) and Mack Boots have developed a new work boot prototype as part of a study aimed at improving safety footwear in underground mines.

The study, funded by the Coal Services Health & Safety Trust, determined that not only do underground mining work boots need to be redesigned for better fit and comfort but that workers themselves need to be better educated about fit and boot selection.

“Unfortunately, many work boots currently worn by underground miners are uncomfortable and are potentially contributing to the high incidence of lower limb injuries sustained in this occupational group,” explained Jessica Dobson, PhD Candidate Biomechanics Research Laboratory.

“Current underground coal mining work boots are designed more for safety in regards to preventing crush injuries and foreign material entering the boot, rather than functionality while walking. Our overall aim for this project was to identify design features that influence the fit and comfort of mining work boots in order to develop evidence-based guidelines to improve work boot fit and function.”

The research team surveyed the job details, work footwear habits and foot problems and lower limb pain history of around 360 workers.

“It was clear from the survey that current work boots do not appear to be meeting the requirements of miners who work in this challenging environment. Despite the introduction a decade ago of a structured lace-up boot to improve ankle support, the frequency of foot problems, lower limb pain and lower back pain reported by these miners is still high, irrespective of the work boot type they wear. More importantly, the miners believe their work boots are contributing to the pain they experience and reported different locations of foot pain depending on whether they wore a lace-up or gumboot,” said Ms Dobson.

By understanding what boot design features positively and negatively affect the movement of the lower limb, the team was able to make recommendations on what boot designs best meet the requirements of underground coal miners.

To do this, the team also examined the physical foot structure of a sample of miners against the internal dimensions of their work boots using 3D imaging to assess work boot fit. The findings from this component of the study showed that while miners had rated their boot fit as reasonable to good, it wasn’t actually the case. There was also a direct correlation between fit and reported foot pain and lower back pain.

“When comparing the shape of their feet to their work boots, we found the miners wore boots that were substantially longer than their feet, but the width of the forefoot and heel areas of the boots were not wide enough for the wearer. This is significant because the fit at the forefoot, instep and heel were key areas that related to the foot pain and discomfort perceived by the miners,” Ms Dobson continued. “It appears workers need to be educated how to fit their boots according to other parts of their foot than just the foot length.”

Using this information, the team worked with Mack Boots to develop a work boot prototype that was made wider across the forefoot and heel relative to standard safety work boots. Workers participating in the study reported improved comfort, with the majority of participants preferring the new boot prototype over the work boot they currently wear.

“By working with Ms Dobson and the University of Wollongong bio-mechanics research team we were able to integrate scientific data into the design of the prototype footwear,” said Dr Caleb Wegener, Head of Footwear Research and Innovation. “The scientific data assists us in reaching our goals of improving worker well being and performance in the workplace.”

Analysis of the extensive bio-mechanical data (three-dimensional motion, muscle activity and in-shoe pressure) collected during this study will be completed by the end of 2017.

Ms Dobson said that these results will help direct the development of work boot fitting guidelines to assist miners when selecting a work boot suitable for their foot shape and guide boot manufacturers on what design features are needed to create a work boot that better meets the needs of underground coal miners.

“Well-fitting work footwear protects and supports the foot and is comfortable to wear, thereby reducing the potential for musculoskeletal complications and pain. We hope to continue working with Mack Boots to translate the findings of our research into work boots available to coal miners,” she concluded.

A copy of the full research report is available at the Coal Services website.