- What is a steel shank?
- What is a steel toe-cap?
- Are shanks or toe caps OSHA approved?
- Do all boots come with both steel shanks and steel toe caps?
- The final word
There is a lot of terminology that’s used in relation to work boots. It can sometimes get confusing, especially if you’re brand new to work boots.
One query that sometimes pops up is the difference between steel shanks and steel toes.
And to quickly answer your question, steel shanks, and steel caps are two completely different components of work boots, shoes, or footwear in general.
People might think that boots are just made of a bit of leather and a rubber sole, but there’s so much more that goes into them.
We’ll now explain precisely what these two things are, and their purposes.
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What is a steel shank?
Shanks are thin and flat rectangular strips of material that lie between the midsoles and outsoles of the boots.
They’re designed to:
- Provide arch support
- Improve stability on rough terrain
- Prevent punctured soles
- Assist with boot longevity
Steel shanks in particular are riveted to the sole. They run from the heel to roughly the ball of the foot. Although steel is considered quite a heavy material, shanks are very thin, so they don’t create too much weight.
Shanks come in half-length, three-quarter length, and full-length.
If shoes or standard non-safety boots require shanks, they usually come with half-shanks. Whereas, heavy-duty boots would need three-quarter or full-length shanks, to give the best support.
They’re not just steel either. They come in other materials, like nylon, composite, plastic, and kevlar, among others.
Here is some extra info if you want to dig deeper.
What are the benefits of steel shanks?
Here are some of the most important benefits of steel shanks in footwear…
1. Arch Support
When on your feet all day, your arches can ache or take a battering. Especially when going over rough terrain or climbing hills, mountains, or ladders.
Objects you put your weight on can dig into the outsoles and put stress on your arches and soles of your feet. But steel shanks spread your weight and the pressure of the object over a longer area.
This is especially useful when climbing or resting on ladders a lot, linemen and arborists know what I’m talking about.
Shanks are particularly important in heeled boots. Because, in a heeled boot, there’s a bridge formed between the ball of the foot and the heel, so there’s no contact with the ground.
This is where the foot arch is situated. The arch is a part of the foot that needs the most support. The shank will strengthen this bridge, making it sag less, and give the arch the contact that it needs to retain shape and avoid potential foot conditions.
2. Stability on rough terrain
Similar to the arch support that shanks provide, they also help to give a solid base when walking. Especially over rough terrain.
This doesn’t mean that they’re really stiff. They’re thin enough to allow flexibility and freedom of movement.
Sometimes, the foot can roll or not get enough grip when walking or climbing on rough terrain. Boots without shanks can sometimes be a bit too flexible, which might not offer as much grip or stability.
3. Prevent punctured soles
Apart from sharp stones or rocks, as mentioned before, the workplace can have lots of other sharp hazards that can be trodden on. Like nails, screws, pins, etc.
A steel shank doesn’t cover the whole sole, so it doesn’t offer as much puncture protection as a steel inner sole does. These are metal plates inside the sole that cover all if not most of the sole area.
However, a steel shank does offer some resistance to sharp objects puncturing the sole and going into the foot.
I personally have punctured my foot by standing on a rusty nail at work, so then I had to receive a tetanus jab. It wasn’t pleasant. But it would have been much less likely to happen if my boots had steel shanks.
4. Assist with boot longevity
As just mentioned, the prevention of sharp objects going all the way through the sole helps to keep the sole intact for longer without the need for repair or replacement.
A steel shank also helps to preserve the shape of the sole and the rest of the boot. When a sole is flimsy, it distorts in shape and puts stress on the seams and stitching, which can eventually lead to cracking soles or soles that come away from the upper.
This flexing and distortion of the sole also alter the shape of the upper. The shape can go back, but it can also stay permanently distorted.
Do all work boots need steel shanks?
Not necessarily. It depends on the type of boot and what type of work or activity you’re going to do while wearing the boots.
A lot of professions really benefit from having steel shanks in their boots. Everything that’s built well needs to have a strong foundation. The sole is the boot’s foundation. Therefore, the sole needs to be strong and offer proper support.
But, wedged sole work boots would have less need for a steel shank than a heeled or high-arched boot because the sole wouldn’t need that extra support.
And wedged soles are generally designed to be more flexible. They’re also less designed for heavy-duty work.
What types of jobs might require steel shanks?
All jobs that require you to walk or be on your feet for long periods would benefit from steel shanks. This is why they’re popular in hiking boots.
They’re also popular for people who walk on rough terrain or climb rocks or structures.
What is a steel toe-cap?
A steel toe cap is a protective piece of material that is underneath the upper material around the toes.
The primary functions are:
- To protect toes from falling objects
- To protect toes from crushing
- To protect toes from puncturing or cutting
As with shanks, toe protection can also be made from different materials than steel. Materials like kevlar, composite materials, aluminum, or plastics like thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU).
Unlike with shanks, most construction sites forbid workers from wearing boots without some kind of toe protection.
Benefits of steel toe-protection
1. Protect toes from falling objects
Accidents in the workplace are common. Things fall from heights or people drop things. I’m sure we’ve all dropped something on our foot and it’s made us hop around in pain.
A human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, more than 19 muscles, and 107 ligaments, so it’s vital to be protected. Although a steel toe-cap doesn’t protect the whole foot, toes are the freely moving parts, and are needed for grip and stability.
Under American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards, toe protection has to meet or exceed the following impact testing:
IMPACT: Footwear retains a .500 inch (1/2 inch) for men’s and .468 inch (15/32 inch) for women’s or greater clearance after a nominal impact of 75 foot-pounds (101.7J), i.e., a 50 pound weight dropped, reaching 117.9 ± 2.4 inches per second velocity at impact.
If you can understand that, you’re smarter than me.
2. Protect toes from crushing
This is a less common hazard than falling objects, but is probably more dangerous and can create greater injuries.
Crushing can come in a number of forms…
- A load or object can be lifted by humans or machinery and lowered onto the toes.
- A vehicle or site plant could run over the foot.
- Toes could get caught in moving parts of machinery.
These are just a few examples.
Like with impact rating, toe protection has to meet or exceed compression rating, as follows:
COMPRESSION: Footwear retains a .500 inch (1/2 inch) for men’s and .468 inch (15/32 inch) for women’s or greater clearance after a compression force of 2500 lbs. (11,121 N).
I could be wrong, but I think this means that for the men, there must be at least a half-inch gap between the steel and the toes after 2500 lbs (11,121 Newtons) of pressure. And the same applies for women with just under half an inch of clearance.
3. Protection from puncturing or cutting
As with the soles of the feet, the uppers are at risk from objects piercing the material. Stray nails or screws. Large brambles from bushes. Steel wire. The list goes on.
There is also a risk of being cut. Some people use grinders to cut stone or metal. Sometimes the object being cut is held in place on the ground by one foot. I’ve done this many times.
That object can slip out through the force of the grinder, or the grinder can jump or shoot forwards. This has also happened to me many times, but I’ve been fortunate.
Needless to say, this could easily do major damage to toes, or even cut them off.
What types of jobs might require steel toe-protection?
Any job that has risks of falling objects or crushing would benefit from steel toe-caps.
Many people in the construction industry use them, from groundworkers, bricklayers, landscapers, all the way to management and everyone in between.
They’re also useful for forklift and delivery drivers, where the loading and unloading of goods could fall or the vehicles could crush toes.
Are shanks or toe caps OSHA approved?
While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn’t test, approve, certify, or endorse any product, performance standards are determined by ASTM.
Do all boots come with both steel shanks and steel toe caps?
Not all work boots have both of these together, but a premium, heavy-duty boot is most likely to.
They serve their own purposes, and one doesn’t affect the other.
The final word
We hope you now have a clear understanding of the differences between steel shanks and steel toe-caps, and their purposes.
It’s worth bearing in mind that steel is tougher than the other materials available. However, there are some drawbacks.
Being a metal, the steel in these boots will set off metal detectors. So, if you use scanners to search for metal objects or utility pipes underground, be sure to keep the scanner away from your feet.
You’ll also need to plan what to wear at airports, because boots with these steel parts will set off the alarms during screening. There’s more detailed information on that topic over on this page: Can You Wear Steel Toe Boots On a Plane?
Also, if the boots aren’t fully waterproof, or if there are holes from wear-and-tear that allow water in, then that water could eventually cause the steel to rust. After rust sets in, they won’t be as effective and could fall apart.
Another thing to add is that steel conducts heat and cold extremely well. This could make the difference to your feet if you work in areas of extreme heat or cold.
If you’d like to learn about other materials of shanks and toe-caps, check our website out for some easy reading. Failing that, feel free to contact us if you have any questions.
That’s it from me for now. Remember to take care of those feet. Always research before buying new boots.
Till next time.
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Hey, Jimmy here. I’m one of the researchers and writers here at BestForMyFeet.com. I’ve been wearing work boots all my life working as a forklift driver, landscaper, groundworker, and now as a tower crane operator so I know a few things about footwear and footcare in general. I’m also working on my first novel. So writing IS my passion. When I’m not writing I love to spend time with my wife, two children, and furball.
Construction Professional, driver, crane operator, cleaner, head chef … these are just some of the jobs I did in the past. Working in all these different environments taught me that having good footwear to protect your feet from different dangers at work IS PARAMOUNT for any worker! On this website, I aim to share all my knowledge and personal experience in dealing with different footwear and foot care issues, and hopefully, you can get something out of it. Enjoy!