Safety shoes have been protecting the feet of workers since their conception in the late 1800s. They are the shoes of choice for tradespersons and labourers who need to work in environments where loose objects, hazardous materials, and heavy machinery generate potentially dangerous situations. With advancements in technology, safety shoes have evolved over time to keep up with the changing needs of workers; however, the need for safety shoes stretches back well over a century.
In 1890, Jan Janszen of the Netherlands patented his design for the first safety shoes. Janszen had applied for the patent in 1888 following years of development and experimentation with various materials and forms of protection for the feet. As a shoemaker, he had keenly observed the harsh working environments in the shoe factories of his day, and had grown tired of the injuries inflicted onto workers due to lack of proper protection. He had a vision to create a safer shoe that compensated for the most common workplace injuries, ultimately patented it in 1890.
Janszen’s safety shoes featured an upper made of leather, with a rubber sole and a steel toecap embedded in the shoe’s heel. He noted that the design undulated slightly with the wearer's movement, providing greater mobility and comfort, particularly important when handling heavy objects or navigating dangerous paths. Janszen also spent considerable time and energy designing the steel toecap, which he tempered and conducted a variety of tests on to determine the best possible combination of protection and durability. He later declared that "the steel toecap is the best protection for the feet that has yet been found for occupations in which only the best possible protection is required".
Janszen’s shoes were an immediate success. As workers around the world began experimenting with the safety shoes on their own feet, their value became unequivocally evident. In their efforts to protect laborers’ feet from the dangers of their environments, safety shoes had become essential tools in the workplace. Today, Janszen’s patent has been twice renewed, first in 1917 and then again in 1930. His contributions to the field of occupational health and safety have changed the ways in which employers had to look after their workers’ feet; workers now had a shoe to rely on that sheltered them while they worked. The safety shoe industry has since grown exponentially and continues to excel in the face of ever-advancing technology and workplace regulations.
The invention of the safety shoe was an invaluable step forward in the right direction towards a healthier and safer workforce. Jan Janszen’s patent set the standard for safety shoes that continues to be upheld today. Sir Harold Gillies once noted, “The most powerful weapon anyone can use today is knowledge”; Janszen’s knowledge, embodied in the safety shoe, has proven to be a powerful weapon indeed.