Should women have to wear heels to work?
When Julia Gillard was working on bilateral relations in India and a uranium deal, she made the news because she fell over in high heels. Of course, many women wear high heels at work and, in high status roles, are even expected to wear them. But what are the health and safety effects of wearing high heels in the workplace?
One US study done in the 1990s estimated the cost of “bad” footwear was $US1.5 billion in medical expenses and 15 million work days each year. In Britain, about 2 million days a year are lost because of lower limb disorders and sufferers spend millions of pounds on foot operations.
No similar studies exist in Australia, but the top types of workplace injury are foot, ankle and lower back pain – all made worse by wearing high heels.
Workplace injury examples
Funeral workers in Victoria campaigned to abolish their uniform of high-heeled shoes because they were so vulnerable to slipping and tripping while carrying out burial duties. One worker had already fallen and had to be picked up by a customer. Meanwhile, flatter shoes worn by the company’s employees in NSW had been passed by a WHS inspector.
A Canadian student compiled a report on high heels and workplace injuries in a restaurant and found all 35 female waiters had slipped, tripped or fallen at least once a week. Some 40% were injured from falling at work and nearly all were wearing high heels. Paradoxically, 91% of respondents said their employer required them to wear high heels.
One electricity supplier was concerned about the number of injuries they were seeing among administration staff wearing high heels in the office. These injuries were happening at a higher rate in the administration areas than in their industrial areas.
Unions in Britain and Australia have come out in the past against high heeled shoes and said no worker should be forced to wear any item that compromises their health.
What employers must do
The law does not dictate the type of footwear to be worn in the office although some dress codes may stipulate closed-in shoes for more hazardous workplaces, such as restaurants. Employees who feel the dress code in their workplace poses a risk to their health and safety can question that code under the Work Health and Safety Act.
Employers do need to carry out a risk assessment of their premises to decide whether workers would be safer wearing flat or enclosed shoes. As part of a risk assessment, consider:
Hazards that could cause possible foot or ankle injury if wearing heels or open-toed shoes;
How severe the foot injury could be;
Whether workers wearing these shoes enter other parts of the organisation, such as factory or workshop;
What could make it more likely these workers would be injured.
Common type of hazards
One type of hazard is air vent grates in the floor, which could trap someone wearing high heels and cause an ankle injury. Another is where workers move from a relatively safe office floor to a workshop area more prone to slippery, uneven or cluttered surfaces. Also think about the implications of an emergency evacuation, for example, when all employees are expected to leave the workplace quickly.
Employers also need to consider how many workers could be exposed to the risk and decide what control measures they could reasonably adopt, without discrimination.