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Sole Food: How to Choose the Right Shoes for Restaurant Work

Anyone who has spent time working in an industrial kitchen can tell you that one of the most important pieces of equipment, whether you’re a chef, cook, or service worker, you can purchase is a good pair of shoes.  The kitchen environment is a hectic and fast-paced one where employees spend long hours on their feet working around dangerous equipment.  Spills happen.  And where spills happen, falls happen.

Here’s some food for thought: Slips and falls account for 34% of restaurant worker injury cases according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the average lost time from work can be as much as 418 days.  This may well be an underestimate, according to Steve DiPilla, a risk assessor for insurance providers.  Accident claims are often assessed by injury type rather than cause.  So a percentage of the burns, sprains, strains, and wounds were probably attributable to a slip or fall.

The shoe you choose then becomes an important piece of safety equipment.  There are no specific regulations concerning footwear in the kitchen environment, but Occupational Safety and Health Standards do require the following concerning shoes:

“The employer shall ensure that each affected employee uses protective footwear when working in areas where there is a danger of foot injuries due to falling or rolling objects, or objects piercing the sole, or when the use of protective footwear will protect the affected employee from an electrical hazard.” (OSHA Standards 1910.136a)

Due to work around heavy equipment and the puncture threats from falling knives or from broken glassware and dishes, these standards certainly apply to the industrial kitchen.

Many of the hazards specific to the kitchen environment, however, are not clearly outlined by the standard, so it’s important for you, as the worker, to inform yourself and make appropriate footwear choices.

Advice from the Pros

While OSHA does offer recommendations for wearing non-skid, waterproof shoes with low heels and good treads, it’s the frontline kitchen workers who have the most to say about proper footwear.  The shoe of choice for most chefs and cooks is the clog.  As you decide on the best shoe for you, consider what chefs have to say about the clog and look for footwear that offers similar features or better yet, invest in a pair of clogs for yourself.

Comfort:  Industrial kitchens are hot places to work where the average workday can be as long as 12 hours–and most of that is spent on your feet!  The clog’s inside sole, or foot-bed, is usually made from material that lessens pressure and absorbs impact. The soles themselves are often covered with rubber or cork for added padding and flexibility. In addition the clog is open enough to allow heat to escape and the insoles are usually made from moisture-absorbing materials to reduce sweating discomfort.

  • Nonslip: In kitchens, spills inevitably happen, and, in the heat of a rush, they don’t alway get cleaned up immediately.  Even when there aren’t spills, oils and greases used for cooking aerosolize and coat surfaces, including floors.  It is thus important to choose a shoe with a non-slip tread.  The bottoms of today’s clogs are made from soft material that holds well to surfaces and comes with tread patterns for extra grip.
  • Durability: Clogs come in leather, suede, and, increasingly, plastics. These materials offer a good protective layer from dropped knives and pans plus they are designed to deflect liquids so spills or wet floors are less likely to soak the feet, because wet feet not only means discomfort, but can also lead to painful blistering and athlete’s foot.  For employees who work around heavy equipment or who just want extra protection, you can purchase clogs made with steel-toes.
  • Slip on: It may seem odd that a worker would want to wear a slip on shoe in a dangerous environment, but that’s exactly the reason clogs have become popular with chefs.  Because they have no laces to come untied, slip on shoes lessen the probability of trips and falls.  In addition, they are quick to get off should an accident occur, such as boiling liquid spilled on the feet.

All This Fuss Over a Shoe?

Chef, writer, and one-time senior food editor for Bon Appetit, Dawn Perry tells the story of a pair of big black clogs she wore when she began her career in the food industry.

“They were not terribly attractive, but by God, it was like gliding around on heavenly pillows, even after 14 hours on my feet, and yet somehow with support,” Perry writes. “My feet were happy. I was happy.”

She goes on to tell of the boyfriend who threw them out without consulting her and how, needless to say, that relationship didn’t last.  If you want to know how important shoes are to the kitchen worker, listen to what she says about reminiscing over her boyfriend and the shoes, “that (the breakup) was definitely for the best. But those clogs! I still think about those clogs.”

So whether your front of the house, a dishwasher, a line cook, or a chef, if you’re purchasing equipment, find that pair of shoes that keeps you floating on a cloud and protects your feet from the harshest kitchen environment.  You’ll be glad you did for years to come.


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