You just got hired for a construction job that requires safety shoes. Or maybe you’ve been in your industry for a while, and it’s time to upgrade the boots you have for a pair that’s more reliable or better quality.
Either way, a classic reinforced toe and structural support should be on your mind regarding personal protective equipment (PPE).
The challenge is that this is a popular product, and there are hundreds of options on the market to sift through. Price, material, durability, OSHA compatibility – and yes, even look – are all factors to consider when browsing.
Yet, there’s no need to get overwhelmed! We did the work for you, comparing composite and steel-toe boots to determin
At a Glance
Composite toe boots and steel toe both have their advantages. Ultimately, both will do the trick if you’re looking for a baseline level of protection in your work shoe.
There are, however, a few factors that go into the choice of brand and style. This factor will be up to you to decide.
Which Type Wins?
We like the composite materials in a shoe better than the traditional steel toe boots.
There are a few reasons for this, but it’s mainly due to the all-over weight distribution vs. steel toe and the variety of styles available in the composite toe.
Different Jobs, Different Shoes
Of course, if you work in a job where there could be falling objects or other harmful risks to your feet (like manufacturing or construction), you might prefer the steel toe.
We look at the comparisons from a broad perspective and try to make a general choice that may affect the most significant number of readers, but only you know your situation best.
Are you interested in how we came to our conclusion? Keep reading for more detail, and maybe you’ll even learn something about the footwear you use every day.
Steel toe work boots have been the standard for nearly a century. Developed on the heels (so to speak) of World War II, when rapid commercialization and industrialization spurred market options, the military also began incorporating toe caps into their boots for added protection.
In recent decades, developments in synthetic materials and style let modern employees decide which type of footwear works best for them. Composite shoes are made of more rigid materials and reduce the need for steel-toe shoes.
Safety is most likely the primary concern when researching footwear of this nature.
Most employers will have guidelines for what footwear they require, so know the outline of safety before you shop.
Impact and compression are the two main areas that safety toe shoes attempt to protect from.
After that, there may be specialty features you’d also like to have in a work shoe. To determine what’s best for your particular workplace, ask several questions:
- What will the temperature and other weather conditions be like?
- What is the likelihood of injury to different areas of my feet?
- Do I need a pair of shoes that is slip-resistant?
- Is “ladder grab” a priority for what I do?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets specific regulations for employers having to do with risk assessment and workplace safety. Depending on where you work, the protective requirements may vary, but there is a general baseline for any job with safety footwear:
- Leather uppers, non-skid sole, oil- and electrical-resistant
- Minimum compression resistance rating of 50-75
- Minimum impact resistance rating of 50-75
- Proper fit to feet
OSHA works in tandem with the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International), which publishes standards for workplace consensus items. They develop and issue consistent safety regulations across the globe for the benefit of various industries.
ASTM also helps ensure shoe manufacturers offer products to consumers that pass safety tests right out of the box. Basically, you can rest assured knowing that any reinforced-toe work boots marketed as “safety wear” will most likely meet the standards required at your place of employment.
Composite toe caps pass the first ASTM tests but weaken in subsequent trials. Makers generally recommend replacing a pair after an accident or other incident that causes stress to the boot structure.
In this category, steel toe wins vs. composite, as it can withstand more direct impact.
One common myth is that composite is superior to steel toe in electrical situations. The reality is that both pass the Electrical Hazard ASTM tests, and both are a viable option in a working environment with electrical or static exposure.
Steel toes may be the gold standard and the type most people know, but nowadays, there are many other synthetic options available.
Carbon fiber is a flexible option, as are rubber and polyurethane (plastic). Non-steel alloys will be lighter than steel and a bit bulkier to compensate. This compensation includes alloys such as:
- A blend of copper
Kevlar is popular in police and military work, for shoes just as in their uniforms.
There’s no clear “winner” in this category, as the material is an individual choice of comfort and preferred aesthetic.
However, if we have to pick one, we like the composite for its upgraded functionality. Steel, though perfectly usable, is limiting in a few areas (which you’ll see as our comparisons continue).
Concerned about travel with your safety footwear? No need to be worried. These shoes can pass through a metal detector and go in a checked bag with no hassle.
If you plan to wear them onto the plane, simply mention them to the TSA agent in case the metal detector decides to be fussy. Even in that instance, your safety toes won’t cause a significant holdup.
However, you’ll most likely have to remove your shoes at security checks in the USA, making this less of an issue.
That extra layer of toughness in the toe box is there for a reason. The plate extending over the toes is what protects them from injury! Depending on your job specifications, that same plate can also make for awkward or unnecessarily heavy wear.
Steel toe shoes, true to name, tend to focus the reinforcement on the toe. A composite pair might feel clunkier due to increased all-over protection.
Want added safety, but without the bulk?
Composite is slightly less intense and more lightweight, making them a great option if you’re an employee without a high risk of workplace injury.
To compensate, a thicker layer of material needs to be used to structure the shoe, making for an unwieldy, boxy feel on your foot.
Therefore, a composite toe is maybe not great for you if you do a lot of walking. However, if you travel to a job site and then stay essentially in one location, this shouldn’t bother you too much.
Keep in mind that there is a range of toe box sizes to adhere to the shape of your feet without inhibiting their natural movement.
You can choose a concentration of protection in whatever area of the feet might be at the highest risk for an accident in your line of work.
Breathability and heat/cold resistance are two more areas that composite does better. As before, composite toe edges out steel toe as the winner, for its elegantly-engineered comfort.
Gone are the days of clunky steel toe boots (though those are certainly still around if you want them). Safety wear for your feet now comes in a wide array of styles, even extending into the dress shoe category!
Clogs and sneakers are two other types that compete with boots for a new, updated look in a reinforced shoe.
Feminine Work Shoes
Carbon fiber, a notoriously versatile material, is still under development for a sleeker look – particularly in women’s styles.
There are pointed-toe and squared-toe options, just like in a dress pump. Brands like Xena, Steel Blue, Timberland, and Safety Girl offer cute colors like pink, blue, and light gray so those looking for a more feminine style can enjoy the look of their workwear.
Don’t be ashamed to admit that the look of your footwear is a priority. There are enough choices on the market that you’re sure to find something that does its job while also suiting your tastes.
As composite toe has a more complex makeup vs. steel toe, they tend to be more expensive in general. However, there are enough other elements of the shoe to consider that it’s hard to make a lateral comparison for the sake of your wallet.
Our recommendation is to shop for both. With so many options on the market, you’ll be able to find something that suits both your preferences and your budget.
Though steel toe may be the reliable classic – and indeed still holds its own in the safety-footwear industry – composite wins out for its modern updates.
It edges out more old-fashioned types of safety shoes in terms of functionality and appeal, even if it can’t altogether eliminate the typical comfort challenges.
After all, a workplace shoe will never feel quite like a running sneaker, no matter how hard the manufacturer tries. However, with so many available choices in the areas of materials, style, and function, you won’t be disappointed with your new safety toes after a little careful research.
Check out some composite work boots and find a style and color that you like today.