If you clock in each day at a construction site, factory, or other hazardous environment, you know that safety begins with your feet.
Selecting the proper work boots for your job is essential, but how do you choose? The market boasts hundreds of different models, many of which serve a specific purpose. There's no universal work boot that performs well in all environments.
At BestReviews, we want those who routinely put themselves in harm's way to start each day on the right foot. That's why we researched and evaluated dozens of pairs of top-performing work boots: to present you with the best possible options. We're proud of the five excellent recommendations in our product matrix.
But one size doesn't fit all, and we know you may still have some questions about what constitutes a quality work boot.
Here are some things to consider when shopping.
Your work boot choice depends heavily on what you plan to do while wearing them.
In some work situations, the question of what to wear on your feet has already been answered by a supervisor who tells you exactly what to buy. In other situations, the employer provides a set of guidelines, but it's up to you to find footwear that adheres to them. For example, laborers and skilled craftsmen in the U.S. must wear boots that are approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The first question you should ask yourself is a broad one: “What exactly are my needs?”
More specifically, what type of toe protection does your job require? Does your work environment dictate a specific tread pattern? Would you benefit from a metatarsal guard? Would you prefer boots with a cement adhesive or high-tech injection technology?
Read on to discover the answers to these questions.
Some work boots include a steel plate inside the toe box. Others feature a toe cap made of aluminum or composite materials. It's up to you to decide which type of toe protection suits you best.
Hearty and dependable, steel-toed boots shield the toes from falling debris, hot construction materials, and dropped tools. This type of footwear has graced the market for decades.
We spoke with former freight line worker Mark Rice, who told us that steel-toed boots were a must-have during his days on the railroad. Steel toes are great for anyone who works with heavy equipment or has cause to use their foot as a blunt-force tool, Mark said.
But steel is heavy, and over the course of an eight- or ten-hour shift, its weight can bring on foot and leg fatigue. What's more, steel-toed boots can conduct electricity, making them unsafe to wear around machinery with a strong electrical and/or magnetic field. Steel-toed boots are also notorious for retaining heat or cold — an uncomfortable proposition, to be sure.
Nevertheless, steel-toed work boots are exceptionally durable. Workers who don't mind wearing a heavy boot of metal should be satisfied with this variety of footwear.
Aluminum wields several advantages over traditional steel, including its lighter weight and increased flexibility. Because aluminum toe caps are so much lighter than their steel counterparts, they create less foot and leg fatigue for the wearer. And aluminum is nonmagnetic and nonconductive, so you needn't worry about exposure to electrically or magnetically charged machinery when wearing them.
Retention of heat/cold is still an issue, but heat dissipates faster through aluminum than it does steel. Some workers question the strength and durability of aluminum vs. good, old-fashioned steel. Suffice it to say that aluminum toe plates meet industry safety standards and offer essentially the same level of protection as steel.
Special polymers and ceramic materials can be combined to mimic the strength of a steel-toed boot. We'll refer to these components as "composite materials."
Composite materials pose no problems with heat/cold retention. They're not overly heavy, and they don't conduct electricity, either. They protect the toes from falling debris and other hazards just like steel does, but they're far more comfortable to wear.
This awesome technology is relatively new, and it may be difficult to find on store shelves.
The quality of the connection between a boot's lower and upper — the body and sole — impacts its durability. Manufacturers use three basic methods to attach rubber soles to leather uppers, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
Cement construction is a popular and relatively inexpensive method used by numerous manufacturers. The leather upper and rubber sole are simply glued together with an industrial-strength adhesive.
These boots may cost less than others, but adhesives tend to degrade over time, especially when exposed to the hazards of a construction site or factory floor. Some boots with cement construction can be repaired or re-soled, but many require complete replacement once the adhesive bond fails.
Some manufacturers join sole to upper via injection technology. The leather upper is held in a special mold while a heated rubber compound (the sole in liquid form) is poured, or injected, into the bottom of the mold. As it cools and dries, the rubber compound fuses to the upper, creating a strong bond that requires no adhesive or stitching.
This method reduces the chances of the boot splitting apart over time and provides superior weather-resistance. Once broken, however, a molded work boot is nearly impossible repair or re-sole.
Besides manufacturing rubber tires for automobiles, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company produces treaded soles for work boots. Attaching these soles requires a complicated stitching process and an additional leather strip, known as a “welt.”
Manufacturers of high-end boots embrace Goodyear welt construction for its exceptional strength and water-resistance. While they tend to cost a lot more than the competition, these boots can easily be repaired or re-soled. As such, they usually last a lot longer.
Mark Rice has been working in boots since high school, but became a true expert when he wore them every day as a dock worker for a freight company. Working in both extreme heat and cold, Mark had the opportunity to see which boots could hold their own and which boot features are the most important. He's proudly worn the same pair of steel-toed work boots for the past six years, and they're still going strong.
In addition to a toe box, some workers benefit from a metatarsal guard. This component fits over the boot's tongue and extends to the toe box, thus protecting the upper foot from sudden impact and hot materials.
The laces you choose can enhance your safety on the job. For example, rescue workers may want to replace standard cotton laces with a set made of synthetic, waterproof material. Factory employees who work in high heat should consider Kevlar-based laces that resist heat and fire. And those who work on difficult terrain may want to try laces with a rough texture, as they tend to stay securely tied.
Tread style affects your stability and comfort on the job. Let the type of work you do guide your decision. For example, if you work at a soft-ground construction site, you'll want a tread that enhances your earth grip. If you work in wet or oily conditions, you might consider a slip-resistant tread that provides extra traction.
Q: Do standard shoe sizes apply to work boots?
A: Not always. We suggest you move up at least ½ of a size.
Q: Will boots that pinch or feel tight in the toe cap “break in” over time?
A: Leather is a flexible material, but steel, aluminum, and composite materials won't necessarily flex for you over time. Better to get the right fit the first time than to trust that the boot will adapt to your foot.
Q: Will a boot that's a little loose be good enough?
A: Again, we recommend a precise fit. A boot that feels too loose is just as bad for you as a boot that feels too tight.
Q: How can I find out if the boots I'm interested in are approved by OSHA?
A: OSHA adheres to standards prescribed by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) for safety-toe boots. This can be a bit confusing because in the past, OSHA endorsed the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards.