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Leather footwear: Gearing up for the big time

10th Jul 2007

The South African leather safety footwear market is much smaller, in pairage terms, than the gumboot market – about 2.4m pairs/year as opposed to about 4m – but in most other ways, leather is the dominant part of the safety footwear industry. By value, for example, leather safety footwear is worth about 2.5 times as much as gumboot sales – about R300-R350m at wholesale per year, by one estimate.

Excluding ‘work footwear’ (which is made without steel toecaps or other protective components) there are seven recognised manufacturers, two of whom are also among the 28-odd importers (the numbers fluctuate), of whom perhaps half a dozen could be said to be consistently importing high standard safety footwear . Leather boots are also more varied, more complex, and more argued over than gumboots, mainly because of their rapid evolution. In less than 30 years (longer in Europe and the USA), leather safety footwear has been through two periods of rapid change, and is now in its third.
The first was the introduction of direct injection moulding (DIM) as a method of manufacture, the second was the introduction of polyurethane (PU) as a soling material.
The third – more accurately, three concurrent, sometimes related evolutions, in styling, comfort and high tech specialisation – is gathering momentum. Through each evolution, however, part of the market has ignored or rejected the changes, mainly because of price, and PVC-soled boots – DIM and even stuck-on – still make up a proportion of sales. There is, therefore, a broad spread of types of leather safety footwear.

Categories: Two common ways of categorising leather safety boots are by price and by reactivity to electricity and magnetism.
In price terms there are four basic categories of leather safety footwear – basic economy, general purpose, premium and niche. In reactivity to electricity, there are three – conductive, antistatic, and non-conductive.
Basic economy boots have embossed leather uppers (usually what is termed Barton print), with a DIM single density PU sole, more rarely a DIM PVC sole, or even stuck-on PVC or rubber soles. They are unlined, partly lined or inexpensively lined, often without a padded collar. They generally have a steel toecap, which may or may not be rust resistant.
General purpose boots also have embossed leather uppers, with a DIM double-density PU sole. They are usually fully lined, with padded collar, and sometimes have a removable sock. They have a steel toecap.
Premium boots usually have a full grain or enhanced grain leather upper, with a variety of soling materials – DIM double-density PU, or combinations of PU and thermoplastic PU (TPU), PU and rubber, or PU and nitrile rubber. Most often they are fully lined, fully padded, with a removable sock, and they have a steel toecap.
Niche boots have upper and soling materials according to function.
Categorised by reactivity to electricity, conductive and non-conductive boots are niche products, probably making up less than 20% of the market. The rest are antistatic. Any of these three can, theoretically, be found in any of the price categories, though in practice conductive and nonconductive boots mostly fall into the premium price range.

Applications: No boot will be perfectly suited for all jobs. Situations as diverse as explosives factories, refineries, and computer chip processing plants require conductive footwear.
Any work situation where workers are exposed to live electricity should specify nonconductive footwear.
Then there’s additional protection – steel midsoles are rare in South Africa, though common in Europe. Here, they’re mainly specified for glass- or glass product manufacturing plants.
In situations where workers are exposed to extremely high temperatures – smelters, for example – rubber is the soling of choice, because it withstands temperatures of 300º C, while PU melts at around 110º C.
Mines, generally, won’t look at leather for underground work, specifying gumboots instead.
In more general work situations, the buyer’s choice is between price categories, balancing price with durability and comfort. The choice can also be dependent on long-service, grade, number and value to the company of the workforce, agreements with unions, and the image the company wishes to give to customers.

Aesthetics: Over the past 10 years or so, the design of leather industrial footwear has been strongly influenced by fashion, modeled on hiking boots and other athletic designs, with higher work content in the uppers.
‘Fashionable’ boots were initially all imported, but now all ranges have been influenced by the trend. There was some suspicion that good looks meant poor performance, but in the main that’s not true. However, the growth in imports has opened the market to more players, and sub-standard footwear has affected the market. This has made the SABS and other recognised marks more important, but it has also given a boost to branded products.
One outcome of the higher fashion content – and greater brand awareness – is that several safety footwear brands are looking at breaking into other areas of the footwear market, particularly outdoor leisure and its related street fashion look-alikes.
There is a precedent: Caterpillar. But where Cats, in this country, is a fashion brand, the new generation has its feet firmly grounded in the cement, rubble and grit of industrial South Africa. Fashion is an offshoot, asking the worker who wears issue boots to spend his own money on the same brand off duty. Like fashion footwear brands, the temptation to move into clothing isn’t far off.
Compared to the safety footwear industry of just 10 years ago, this is a quantum leap. The leather safety footwear brands have grown up. There’s more to come.

Toecaps: Most safety toecaps are steel, with the ability to recover their shape after an impact of up to 200 Newtons. This is the minimum recognised in SA, and quality difference is limited to epoxy-coated or painted steel toecaps, with the former more rust-resistant. Alternative materials, such as high pressure moulded aluminium and polycarbonate, are also available and have advantages in some situations.




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