When it comes to PPE, the obvious is often overlooked.
Sure, there’s a hard hat, safety glasses, high visibility vest, gloves and workboots but how often are those work boots inspected for serviceability?
If you’re part of Teamsters 419 working for Canada Crane you get an allowance for new work boots every six months. Other unions call for workboot allowances every year or according to how many hours worked and it differs by contract with each employer sometimes.
Paying attention to work boots, however, is critical in terms of Occupational Health and Safety. Stats from the United States show those who are on their feet everyday face a higher risk of muscular-skeletal disorders (MSDs) and that’s about half of all workplace related injuries.
Construction sites, of course, come with much high risks than the average factory floor and so there’s even more potential damage from improper footwear. With the impact not being properly absorbed by the footwear extra stress is placed on the ankles, knees, hips and back.
Master Electrician Garry Janes of IBEW 353 says he replaces his own safety boots every six months, even though it comes out of his own pocket.
“We had a one-time deal where we could get new boots at a discount,” says the 40-year veteran of the trade. “But we don’t have it in our contract. I have to replace mine every six months because they go dead. Literally, the sole dies. I’m walking on concrete for 12 hours most days and it really takes a toll and I start to feel it in my back.”
There are other issues with boots over time as well. Soles wear down and could lose grip, leading to slips and falls. They can split, allowing water to seep in while the leather boot itself can tear as well. As the leather wears it means a less tight fit and that too can cause issues.
PPE has been a key component of the labour movement’s drive since day one to bring safety standards to workers, especially in construction.
John Colantonio, second generation owner of Mr. Safety Shoes, says historically there was always a worker allowance to buy safety shoes but over the years it has become less common mostly because the workforce doesn’t always work for the same employer.
Colantonio’s father, Frank, had been an organizer with the Carpenters Union in the 1960s and been through the two legendary strikes that cemented the trades union movement in Toronto.
He and his wife Nella founded their shoe business in 1972, converting the family lady’s footwear store into a construction boot store named Safety Shoes and Equipment Centre.
Safety was always top of mind for Frank. The tradition continues even as the boots being sold have evolved with modern designs and materials to add comfort to protection.
Tradespeople should also be aware of the hidden sting in some reimbursements.
“While some construction labour union contracts have clauses that pay the member for their safety footwear,” he says. “People should know when you get money to buy boots and there is no proof you bought boots so it’s a taxable benefit. The allowance given, say $120 – ends up being taxed so so it’s really only around $75 the worker is getting after tax.”
The employer and the member should work out a program where the member gets 100 per cent of the benefit tax free, he advises.
He says it’s important to maintain fit and comfort. “They’re tracking folks walking 20,000 steps a day, that’s a lot.”
Boot design has changed over the years, he adds, with more attention now to the soles.
“The old-style sole had one density with a material that didn’t offer much shock absorption,” he says. “Now there is a dual density outsole with a middle density sole which is quite resilient and acts as a shock absorber for the spine and it also increases the longevity of the outsole.
“There’s also new Vibram soles which are slip resistant on wet and icy surfaces,” he says. More and more employers are investing in this type of footwear for their workers as just one lost-time injury due to a bad slip and fall could have a very negative impact on both the employee and the company.”
Jason Ottey, Director of Government Relations and Communications for Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 183 says the tools and boots clause has been part of the contract language so long he can’t even point to when it was first included.
“It’s a bread and butter, motherhood issue,” he says. “It’s never really comes up because it’s always there and the employers don’t mind it and of course we listen to what our members want.”