On many jobsites and in many facilities, safety-toe footwear is a must. According to OSHA, employees must wear protective footwear when working in areas where there is a danger of foot injuries due to falling or rolling objects.
Steel-toe boots are a traditional choice, but there are other nonmetallic options, including composite-toe boots, which have protective toe caps made of plastic, carbon fiber or other strong synthetic materials. So how do you decide between composite vs. steel-toe boots?
Composite Toe vs. Steel Toe: Protection
First, let’s look at the most important issue: protection.
Safety footwear manufacturers test and rate their shoes and boots according to standards developed by ASTM International. For footwear with a protective toe cap, the relevant standards are ASTM F2412 (Standard Test Methods for Foot Protection) and ASTM F2413 (Standard Specification for Performance Requirements for Protective (Safety) Toe Cap Footwear). ASTM F2413 specifies that the toe cap must be tested to withstand impact and compression. Impact and compression resistance are determined by following the test methods spelled out in ASTM F2412.
- Impact testing looks at what happens when something heavy falls on the shoe.
- Compression testing looks at what happens when something heavy rolls onto the shoe.
Since all safety-toe footwear must pass the same kinds of impact and compression tests, the bottom line is this:
In ASTM-compliant safety-toe footwear, the toe cap will offer a sufficient level of protection, whether it’s made of steel or composite material.
ASTM-compliant safety footwear is marked with a code that specifies which hazards the footwear has been tested against. In addition to the impact and compression testing, there are tests of protection against electrical shock, punctures and other hazards. Learn more about ASTM F2413 and decoding safety toe footwear labels here.
Composite vs. Steel Toe: Comfort
Once protection and compliance are taken care of, comfort becomes a major consideration.
Here, the weight of the shoe or boot is an issue. According to Safety + Health magazine, steel toe caps are heavier than composite toe caps. But how much does that matter? Skeptics may tell you that the weight of the toe cap itself is only a small portion of a boot’s total weight. Others will point out that for workers who are on their feet all day, even a small difference in weight can contribute to fatigue. Ultimately, comfort is subjective, and personal preferences come into play.
If you’re looking for the most comfortable work boots for standing all day and you want to try “going light,” keep in mind that it’s not just about steel-toe boots vs. composite-toe boots. There are many other factors that influence weight.
Take the sole, for example. According to Industrial Safety & Hygiene News (ISHN), much of a work boot’s weight comes from its heavy duty sole. Similarly, the choice of material for the boot’s upper and insulation can add or subtract ounces. So if you’re looking for work boots that offer protection in a lightweight package, consider footwear that uses the latest advanced materials for its sole, upper and insulation.
The Importance of Good Fit
When it comes to comfort, don’t forget fit. The best “comfortable” work boots are often going to be the best fitting work boots. Here, it’s less a question of steel-toe boots vs. composite-toe boots and more a question of how an individual pair accommodates your feet.
According to ISHN, too-tight footwear can lead to in-grown toenails, blisters, corns and other ailments—and it’s a bad idea to buy tight safety-toe boots with the idea that they’ll “break in,” because the protective toe can’t stretch and conform to the shape of your foot in the way that leather can. To make sure your boots won’t be too tight, ISHN recommends these tips for finding the best comfortable work boots:
- When you try on the work boots, wear the same kind of socks that you wear on the job.
- Try on the boots in the afternoon or evening, because your feet tend to swell over the course of the day, and you want them to be at their largest when you fit-test a new pair.
And don’t forget to consider the size and shape of the boot itself. Here, the toe cap material can make a real difference. Composite toe caps need to be somewhat thicker than their steel counterparts to offer a similar level of protection, and this can make the shoe or boot seem larger and more bulbous, changing how the footwear feels, according to Occupational Health & Safety.
Are Composite-Toe Boots Better in Cold Weather?
If you’re looking for comfortable winter shoes for work, you need footwear that can handle cold weather well—and some people will tell you that composite toes are better in the cold than steel toes.
This makes sense in theory: metal is a good thermal conductor, which means that a cold piece of metal in your boot would allow the heat from your warm foot to escape to the colder environment, making your foot feel colder. Meanwhile, plastic—which is what many composite toes are made of—is a good thermal insulator that less readily transfers heat, according to the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
So what does OSHA think? According to the cold stress guide published by the agency, people working in cold weather should wear shoes or boots that are insulated and waterproof—but the guide does not include a recommendation for composite vs. steel toe. And many manufacturers offer composite-toe boots that are insulated and waterproof, making them suitable for cold weather. As with weight, this may come down to personal preference.
There’s one area where composite-toe boots have a clear edge over their steel-toe counterparts: if you have to pass through a metal detector at work, steel-toe boots will set it off.
However, not all composite-toe boots are metal detector friendly, according to one manufacturer, because they may still include a steel shank. So, if your work requires you to pass through a metal detector, you’ll need completely non-metallic shoes and boots. Passing through security is not going to be a problem for most people at their jobs, but this might be the one case where steel-toe boots vs. composite-toe boots has a clear winner.