You could argue that the most important tool in a worker’s inventory is a good pair of work boots, and the science that goes into designing, testing, and refining work boots reflects this. It’s really impressive how many specialized types of footwear there are under the umbrella of “work boot.” This can lead to some confusion. What do all the different features mean? How are they tested? Do I need a safety toe? What’s the difference between composite and steel toes? And what the heck is a Goodyear Storm welt? (We’ve actually examined this last question in detail already.)
Testing for work boot safety features is done by independent agencies like ASTM International, formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials. These organizations came out of the industrial revolution in answer to the explosive growth of railroads and other complex industries with lots of chemicals, materials, and moving parts prone to failure. A railroad chemist by the name of Charles Dudley saw how the slap-dash way mass-production pushed out equipment was leading to failures and accidents, and the ASTM sought to create industry quality and safety standards. They had no enforcement power; they weren’t a government agency, but the standardized testing and certification they produced whipped industries into line as companies didn’t want to be left out.
These days, Thorogood Boots are the industry standard for workplace footwear. If you’re not familiar with Thorogood (how?), they’ve been at it since 1892, designing and crafting boots for construction workers, linemen, firefighters, law enforcement, and anyone else whose job absolutely depends on tough, capable, and protective footwear. And when I say crafted, I do mean it--Thorogood puts a lot of careful work and quality-control into every pair (to see how it works, check out this fascinating - if a bit dry - video demonstration). They’re the most comfortable work boots you can buy, and they’re tough. All their work boots are ASTM tested and certified for a variety of workplace conditions, so they’re a good place to start exploring these features.
Let’s start with the most basic question regarding work boots - the toes. Many work boots are built with a cup of steel built right into the toe as armoring, like the Thorogood American Heritage 8-inch Safety Toe Boot. These toes are tested for two things: impact (something striking your toe) and compression (something heavy rolling onto your toe). And they’re no joke, either. I’ve seen firsthand what they can do. Once, while working in the garage, my friend drove a car right onto my toe by accident. When I told him, “Back up, you’re on my toe,” he thought I was joking around. I started to panic, but when he reversed the car off of me, my foot was fine (Note: Absolutely do NOT try this at home).
Those boots’ toes were steel, but these days you’re as often as not going to see composite toe work boots, like Thorogood's 7-inch Infinity FD Waterproof Outdoor Boots. These composite toes are made with blends of Kevlar and carbon fiber, and have the same safety rating as steel toes. They’re not inherently better or worse in the impact and compression tests. Composite toes are a little more expensive than steel, but they have several benefits. First, they’re more corrosion-resistant. They’re better thermal insulators, so they may be more suited to outdoor work in cold weather. They’re also non-conductive, so electricians and folks who work around live wires might find them a better option. They’re lighter than steel, but it should be said that if weight is a big consideration for you, and you don’t need a safety toe, then the non-safety toe American Heritage boots will check all the same remaining boxes as the safety toe offerings. A lot of workers go for this 6-inch American Heritage moc toe model in particular, due to its additional Electrical Hazard (EH) rating.
A work boot’s outsoles are the unsung heroes here. Not only do they have to absorb impacts so that your body isn’t, but they’ve got to maintain their traction and keep your foot steady while you work. If they’re doing their jobs, you don’t even notice it; if they’re not, you’re flat on your butt. When Thorogood is developing their outsoles, they’re looking for two things: how does the boot handle flat, slick surfaces; and how does it handle loose, gravelly or muddy surfaces? In order to stand up well to slick surfaces, the material has to be “sticky,” squeezing liquid out of the way and creating as much friction as possible between it and the ground. On muddy and loose surfaces, on the other hand, an outsole needs deep lugs to reach into the muck and grab on. The best work boots will do both these things, but depending on the job they’re meant for, they’ll lean toward one method or the other.
For slick surfaces, Thorogood has developed what they call the MAXWear Wedge Outsole. As we’ve previously discussed, wedge outsoles allow more contact on the ground and more friction. Thorogood’s MAXWear Wedge is nice and sticky, flexible and more slip-resistant than the Vibram outsoles that dominate the industry. At the other end of the spectrum are the outsoles on Thorogood’s Infinity FD 7-inch Waterproof Outdoor Boots. The Infinity FD Flex-Drive outsoles are fantastic, with a 90-degree heel and deep multi-traction lugs that not only bite into the ground but quickly shed mud too.
Shanks are flat-ish, rigid pieces of material that run some portion (usually between half and full length) of the boot between the outsole and the insole, running between your heels and the ball of your toes. Shanks are what keep work boots in shape despite whatever punishment you deal them. A good shank will not just hold its shape, but will flex with you on the job. Traditionally, steel shanks have been used, but these days many bootmakers are opting for more flexible and less cold-conducting non-metallic materials, especially fiberglass. Fiberglass shanks are lightweight and flexible, and lightweight boots like the Thorogood 1957 6-inch Non-Safety Toe Work Boot and a lot of hiking boots use them to great effect when high-paced movement is the name of the game. For heavier-duty situations, and when piercing hazards are an issue, however, Thorogood opts for more reinforced shanks using a blend of composite materials. Composite shanks are what you’ll find in the Gen-Flex and Infinity FD series. An outdoor boot like the GEN-Flex2 8-inch Side-Zip Wellington has a really lightweight frame to begin with, so the composite shank is all positives there.
In many high-quality work boots, the upper of the boot is connected to the outsole with what’s called a Goodyear welt, in which a strip of leather or fabric runs along the perimeter of the shoe, tucked under the upper, and is stitched to the outsole, tightly fastening the whole boot together. It’s a very good method of construction, and has several benefits. First, the welting process creates a raised perimeter around the footbed, and the welt is usually cushioned in some way across the outsole (Thorogood uses nice, springy cork), so that affects and improves the general feeling of the boot. But the main reason people prefer a Goodyear welt over the more common method of using cement to fasten a shoe’s upper and outsole is this: when the outsole of a welted boot is worn down, it can be removed and replaced with a fresh new one, stitched on by your local cobbler so that your trusty work boots’ soles are as good as new. With cement construction, when that outsole starts to go, it can’t be replaced.
Thorogood and other quality boot-makers are rightfully proud of their Goodyear welts, and they’re often put forward as a selling point, but cement construction has some benefits as well. Quality cement has gotten quite good in recent years, so that the quality of the actual fastening is on-par with a Goodyear welt. There is some improvement in the flexibility of the overall boot. Cement construction is also better equipped to handle prolonged and repeated wetness over months and years, though the beefed-up Goodyear Storm welt that Thorogood favors is also water-durable.
I’m going to level with you. I prefer a Goodyear welt. But the truth is that, for the most part, quality cement construction is going to be just as good a choice for most folks. Especially when it comes to work boots, most people just aren’t going to resole them. By the time you’ve beaten up the soles enough to need new ones, you’ve probably beaten the heck out of the whole boot. At that point, you’re probably better off getting new (Thorogood) boots.
Good waterproof work boots have a lot of needs to juggle. Of course, the most foolproof way to go about building a waterproof boot is exemplified by the Infinity FD 17-inch Insulated Waterproof Rubber Boots. Full, durable scent-free waterproof rubber envelopes your feet all the way up 17 inches. It’s got that great Infinity FD outsole for making your way through mud. You can trudge through water all day and it’s not getting in. But there’s more to it than that; they also have to keep your feet warm in the drink, and let your feet breathe. To that end, the interior is insulated and lined with antimicrobial wicking liners to circulate air and draw sweat away from your feet.
Rubber boots aren’t suitable for all work situations, though, and that’s where things get tricky. You want to go as high as is comfortable for your job; 17 inches is a bit unwieldy for many situations. For flexible, contouring waterproof leather boots, the welt connecting the outsole to the upper has to be very high-quality. The tongue must be gusseted, connecting to the body of the shoe all the way up - it won’t do to have water seeping in around the laces. Thorogood’s waterproof work boots do a good job of incorporating all these, as well as keeping the insides breathable and wicking away your sweat so you’re not keeping water out just to stew in your own sweat. But I want to draw special attention to the GEN-Flex2 8-inch Tactical Side-Zip Trooper Boot. Designed with military, law enforcement, and EMS duties in mind, these boots have all the above features. What’s more, these waterproof tactical boots have leather and nylon construction that’s ASTM-certified not just against water, but against blood-borne pathogens and microbes--truly an impressive complement of armor.
But let’s say you don’t need waterproofing up to 8 or 17 inches. Let’s say you prefer a lighter shoe, and the range of motion that a low-top shoe provides. Work shoes that feel like running shoes but don’t sacrifice the protections of the boots discussed above are highly-suited to folks who need to cover a lot of distance, staying on their feet and on the move all day. Delivery drivers, warehouse workers, folks on the move need a lighter, more flexible outsole with slip-resistance dialed-in to moving fast over wet terrain and turning on a dime - and plenty of cushion in the insole. Thorogood’s Athletic Slip-Resistant (ASR) Series is tailored especially for their needs. The ASR Series Tactical Oxford has been tested on every surface you can imagine - flat, wet, icy, greasy, loose gravel, turf, this thing can handle them all. It’s flexy and light, very comfortable, but reinforced where it needs to be and toughened against puncture hazards. You can even get a composite safety toe model.
If you’re a construction foreman, an officer, if you’re in intense foot service, or just someone who needs to dress it up a bit on the job, there are even great work shoes that keep their job-fitted features a little more low-key. The Thorogood Safety Toe Oxford’s shiny full-grain leather and saddle belie a sticky certified slip-resistant outsole with deep lugs. Made to be worn on long shift, it’s got an EVA footbed to protect your feet from all those impacts as well as heat and cold.
The Future of Work Boots
The work boot market is expected to grow like gangbusters in the next decade. With all the work going into job-fitted boots, trust that we’ll see all of these features improving over the years - stronger, lighter, more comfortable, more protective. Anti-static and electrical hazard protection as well as better chemical and acid resistance are some of the fields where improvements are coming particularly hard and fast, and Outdoor Equipped will be here to tell you all about them. So suit up, protect your feet, and keep up the good work!