Using Powered Industrial Trucks? Lifting Heavy Objects? Make Sure Your Employees Have Steel-Toed Shoes!

By:  Lucas I. Pangle, Esq.

What you need to know: If your employees lift heavy items or are on foot in the proximity of powered-industrial vehicles (such as electric pallet jacks), then it is a good idea to require steel-toed shoes.

Or, so says Cal/OSHA and the four court decisions that have affirmed that position. The latest one—an unanimous October 17, 2019 decision by a California Court of Appeals—agreed with the lower court that Home Depot U.S.A. violated California’s foot protection regulation (8 C.C.R. § 3385) by not requiring employees wear steel-toed or hard-toed shoes. Though the decision only has direct legal implications for California employers, the Federal OSHA system has a similar foot protection standard at 29 C.F.R. § 1910.136.

The operative California regulation states, in part:

(a) Appropriate foot protection shall be required for employees who are exposed to foot injuries from electrical hazards, hot, corrosive, poisonous substances, falling objects, crushing or penetrating actions, which may cause injuries or who are required to work in abnormally wet locations.

Cal/OSHA alleged that Home Depot’s failure to require steel-toed shoes created two hazards: (1) penetrating foot injuries from falling objects and (2) foot injuries sustained from the crushing actions of industrial trucks. The testimony depicting the work practices in Home Depot’s facility may well resemble your workplace:

Lifting Heavy Boxes.

  • Employees lifted heavy boxes (things like furniture, grills, toilets, and tool chests) that ranged in weight from 5 to about 180 pounds.
  • Employees stacked those boxes on pallets at a height of 7 or 8 feet using step stools, and the lighter boxes would sometimes fall from the stacks.

Proximity to Powered Industrial Trucks.

  • Electric Pallet Jack drivers coming to pickup pallets got within about two feet of the employees wrapping the pallets in plastic.
  • Electric Pallet Jack drivers sometimes dismounted their Electric Pallet Jacks to pick up the boxes and put them on their pallet. When they got off their vehicles, other Electric Pallet Jack operators sometimes drive too closely, sometimes getting within two or three feet, if not closer.
  • Though electric pallet jacks operated in ‘drive aisles’, employees frequently walked through those drive aisles and came within a foot of an electric pallet jack.

In the judgment of the California Court of Appeals, these work practices threatened employees with falling boxes, boxes lifted and dropped, and being run over by the wheels of an industrial truck—the exact hazards contemplated by the foot protection standard. Though Home Depot argued that its extensive engineering and administrative controls sufficiently addressed these hazards, these controls failed to remove employees from the zone of danger. In fact, witnesses recounted seeing boxes fall from pallets and seeing Electric Pallet Jacks come within a few feet of workers on foot—all with Home Depot’s engineering and administrative controls in place.

Lifting heavy objects and working alongside powered industrial vehicles are commonplace work activities. The best protection you can provide yourself and your employees is to create straightforward PPE rules: where powered industrial trucks are present or employees move heavy objects, steel-toed or hard-toed shoes are required.

Without making steel-toed shoes a requirement of your workplace, you—like Home Depot—may find yourself scrambling to justify to OSHA (and maybe a judge) why your administrative controls and foot protection policies are effective at preventing foot injuries. Based on Home Depot’s effortful, but unsuccessful, defense of its footwear protection polices, that will be an insurmountable challenge for most.

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