17:00 PM

If The Shoe Slips

Pitt Bioengineer Kurt Beschorner receives 4-year, $2.1 million grant for developing slip-resistant footwear evaluation tools in food service settings

University of Pittsburgh junior Cameron Kiebort wasn’t thinking about slip-resistant footwear while waiting tables at her local Mexican restaurant— she was thinking about style. 

“When you're waitressing, you're typically going for stylish shoes because how you look can help you make tips,” said Kiebort, an industrial engineering student in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. “You also don't want to buy an expensive pair of sneakers just to get food and drinks spilled all over them.”

Kiebort’s sentiments are felt by many other employees in the food service industry, where barriers to choosing correct footwear for workplace safety are prevalent. To solve this problem, Kurt Beschorner, associate professor of bioengineering,  recently received a 4-year, $2.1 million dollar R01 continuation grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) for his project “Preventing Slips in Food Service: Development of Tools for Shoe Selection and Replacement.”

Although many shoes are labeled as slip-resistant, performance varies across different types of shoes and degrades through wear. Beschorner’s study aims to develop and validate shoe selection and inspection tools for the food service industry using a user-centered design approach, with the intention of these tools being adopted by the industry to prevent slip and fall accidents. 

This grant builds upon years of previous research done in the Human Movement and Balance Laboratory (HMBL), where Beschorner and colleagues have studied slip-resistance measures like coefficient of friction and even developed a test using AA batteries to determine the integrity of slip-resistant footwear. 

“Our prior work has allowed us to understand features of worn shoes that were related to loss of friction and performance,” Beschorner said. “Part of what we're doing now is developing a device to measure those features and give people feedback on when worn shoes should be replaced.”

While slip and fall accidents are a leading cause of injury in food service workplaces,  slip-resistant footwear standards are neither well understood nor enforced. 

“One thing we learned through conversations with food service workers is that they typically don't have any guidance on which shoes they should be purchasing,” Beschorner said. “There's no regulation on what can be called a slip-resistant shoe, so our research is going to collect performance data on slip-resistant labeled shoes and make that information available.”

This was true for Kiebort, who was only told to wear shoes that she wouldn’t slip in while she ran food and drink through the busy kitchen and bar. Along with lack of specificity, Kiebort also faced financial and social obstacles in obtaining the right shoes to keep her safe at work. 

“As a high school student, I couldn't really afford to buy my own shoes,” Kiebort said. “I also just wanted to buy shoes that were popular, and I wasn’t really looking for comfort or practicality at my job.”

Understanding the various hurdles that employees face in choosing work-appropriate, slip-resistant footwear is critical for the success of this study, according to Co-PI Carolyn Sommerich, Ohio State University Professor of Integrated Systems Engineering.

“We need to understand what the barriers to adoption are,” Sommerich said. “It’s great to do laboratory research, but employees may know they need new shoes but can’t afford them, so we need to convey this information to them and their employers in a way they actually find useful.”

The study will establish two tools: one to help employees select proper footwear for their job and another to let them know when to replace worn shoes, according to Beschorner. 

“Our goal is to develop those two tools, put them in restaurants, and evaluate whether they can lead to behavioral changes that lead to people having shoes that protect them better,” Beschorner said. “We want to create tools that provide useful information and aren’t a burden to the employee.” 

The science behind non-slip shoes

Beschorner has utilized his background in mechanical engineering and bioengineering to study the biomechanics and ergonomics of non-slip shoe friction and materials for nearly fifteen years. He’s found that the basics of slip-resistant footwear come down to understanding both material and geometry. 

“Many non-slip shoes are made of some form of synthetic rubber with some materials being better than others.” Beschorner said. “Also, when somebody steps on a puddle, outsole geometry affects how fluid can drain from underneath their shoe, and if the fluid can’t drain from underneath, it gets stuck and increases slip risk.” 

Although Beschorner has spent much of his career studying non-slip footwear, he has found that the field is under-researched compared to other similar industries. 

“The understanding of shoe-floor friction was an area where the science was not sufficiently developed and where there was an opportunity to increase the science, enhance design, and prevent injuries,” Beschorner said. “Interestingly, the tire industry was years ahead of the shoe floor friction research when I started, so we’ve taken knowledge and techniques from these other fields and brought them into shoe design.”

A slip-resistant partnership 

A main goal of this project is to work with local  partners to ensure that the tools they develop are functional for food service shoe suppliers and employees. Current partners include Millie's Ice Cream Works and Saf-Gard Safety Shoe Company, and Beschorner and his team are actively looking for more local partners to collaborate with in this study.

“Most food service workers are required to wear slip-resistant shoes, so it's a pretty sizable market segment,” Beschorner said. “Saf-Gard is going to help bring the perspective of shoe manufacturers to our project, because we want to create a solution that includes the people who sell the shoes, the workers, and the owners.”

Millies Supply Chain and Operations Manager Phil Johnson noted his eagerness for this partnership, as did Ashley Dillon, Chief Marketing Officer of SR Max Slip-Resistant Shoes and Saf-Gard Safety Shoe Company.

"Because of our commitment to maintaining a safe work environment, Millie's Ice Cream Works is excited to participate in this joint research. We are looking forward to seeing how the results will help to improve safety given the unique challenges at Millie's specifically, and the Food and Beverage industry at large.”

“Research that identifies improvement opportunities in the slip-resistant shoe industry is of vital importance to protecting food service employees from slip and fall injuries,” Dillon said. "At Saf-Gard/SR Max, we believe in continual improvement and empowering consumers to make the safest choice for their work environment—we look forward to participating with Kurt and his team in this research."

Beschorner hopes that their collaborative approach to this research, which will engage a variety of stakeholders at each stage of the project, will end up benefiting all members of the food service industry.

“As we develop more research and quantify the benefits, my hope is that companies will have the information that they need to estimate the benefits of more generous footwear programs,” Beschorner said. “I expect that many restaurants may discover that they can save the company money and protect their workers simultaneously."

To partner with Beschorner’s team for this study, please reach out to him directly at beschorn@pitt.edu (Western PA) or Carolyn Sommerich (Columbus, OH) sommerich.1@osu.edu for more information.