researcher decided between two pairs of shoes to wear in the lab

Sarah Hill

Walk This Way: Shoes To Wear In the Lab

Lab Safety

Special shoes are almost always required for working in a lab. Unlike Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that you would leave in the lab, the shoes you wear are a decision you make before you head to work. It’s something many employers even reimburse cost-wise for their research employees.

Shoes as barriers

“Closed-toe shoes are mandated by the CDC through the Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL) publication and should be worn by people within the labs,” stated David Brammer, D.V.M.; DACLAM, executive director and chief veterinarian for Animal Care Operations at the University of Houston.

And Princeton University’s Environmental Health and Safety’s website is comprehensive when it comes to what kind of shoes to wear in the lab: “Wear closed-toe shoes at all times in buildings where chemicals are stored or used. Do not wear perforated shoes, sandals or cloth sneakers in laboratories or where mechanical work is conducted. These shoes offer no barrier between you and chemical and physical hazards.”

Water, water everywhere…

Water spillage is common in a lab. “Chemical resistant overshoes or boots may be used to avoid possible exposure to corrosive chemicals or large quantities of solvents or water that might penetrate normal footwear (e.g., during spill cleanup),” stated Princeton’s site. Dangerous if it’s a chemical spill and at the very least uncomfortable if it’s just a lot of water pooling in your shoes, having the right footwear can be very serious decison.

Getting your feet wet has another downside. “Slips, trips, and falls (STFs) are the third most common type of non-fatal work-related injuries in the United States,” stated the CDC on their website. “Injuries from STFs often lead to time off the job for workers … Employers: learn how slip-resistant shoes can help prevent worker slip injuries.”  And OSHA said in their publication, “Exposure to wet floors or spills and clutter can lead to slips/trips/falls and other possible injuries. Keep floors clean and dry. In addition to being a slip hazard, continually wet surfaces promote the growth of mold, fungi and bacteria that can cause infections.”

These boots were made for walking!

Although generally not required in most laboratories, steel-toed safety shoes or boots may be necessary when there is a risk of heavy objects falling or rolling onto the feet, such as in bottle-washing operations or animal care facilities.

ACO members at UH that work in the animal facility are reimbursed up to $75 for work shoes.   However: “Rarely do the staff select steel toe shoes,” said Brammer. Instead, he said that “the wet environment requires shoes with strong sole friction and waterproof materials.”   

Hot situation

Sadly, in the following scenario, protective footwear did not help the situation. Think twice about wearing “paper-over shoes.” As reported in the Technology Networks blog: “8 Stories of Lab Safety Gone Wrong” there was a fire: “As the scientist picked up their loop and went to sterilize it in the ethanol they knocked the ethanol all over the bench. As they then grabbed tissues to mop up the spillage they moved their handful of tissues through the Bunsen flame on their return arc, igniting the tissue and then subsequently the ethanol, which had rapidly spread over the bench and was now pouring onto the floor. They next tried to stamp out the flames, but were wearing paper over-shoes which also caught fire, melting the scientist’s shoes.”   

So, what to wear?

Lastly, although one might think leather is good for durability reasons, Princeton’s site warns that: “Leather shoes tend to absorb chemicals and may have to be discarded if contaminated with a hazardous material.” Crocs, canvas shoes and flip-flops – also unwelcome in the science lab.

The Big Idea

What’s left? The Clinical Laboratory Standards Institute (CLSI) stated, “Shoes should be comfortable, rubber soled, and cover the entire foot.” Medical supply stores and podiatrists can be good at giving suggestions of where you can buy the most lab-appropriate shoes. Your feet are generally an indicator of your overall health – think for a minute of a diabetic and what they need to do to keep their feet healthy. By wearing the right shoes to work, you are trying to maintain a safe atmosphere for everyone – you’ll be less likely to slip and fall near a co-worker and be protected should an unexpected spill occur.