When Nicola Thorp, aged 27, arrived on her first day at PwC in flat footwear, she was told that she had to wear shoes with a “2 to 4in heel”.
She was employed by agency Portico. A Portico spokesman said: “In line with industry standard practice, we have personal appearance guidelines across many of our corporate locations. These policies ensure staff are dressed consistently and include recommendations for appropriate style of footwear for the role. We have taken on board the comments regarding footwear and will be reviewing our guidelines in consultation with our clients and team members.”
The question of footwear at work, and heels particularly, has been in the news again this week, with MPs calling for fines for sexist dress rules.
What has not surfaced in the debate so far has been any really objective consideration of safety. Those employers who are keen to project a "glamour" image as part of their business profile also have duties to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety, health and welfare of their staff. Slips and trips are a major cause of falls in the workplace, and falls on the level, both at work and in public spaces, have been estimated to cost the UK £1billion annually.
The first duty of employers is to provide a safe place to work, for example by removing trip and slip hazards. Providing good lighting and handrails on stairs are also important. But footwear choice is important too, and the HSE gives advice on selection of appropriate protective and non-slip footwear for industrial environments (www.hse.gov.uk/slips/footprocure.htm).
But what about the office?
The TUC produces some very useful guidance on footwear at work (Working feet and footwear - www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/footwear.pdf) which comes down fairly hard against the idea that employers should require female staff to wear high heels as part of a dress code. It focuses particularly on choosing footwear that is comfortable, for example for workers whose jobs mean that they have to spend a lot of their time standing.
Concern about the potential impact of wearing high heels on women's health, and in causing musculoskeletal and long-term foot disorders, have been expressed in medical circles for more than 50 years. Some organisations have called for compulsory wearing of high heels at work to be outlawed. For example in 2009, the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists (UK) made the statement that “women workers should not be made to adhere to a dress code that can damage their feet and should have the choice to wear footwear that will not leave them prone to long term foot health problems”.
Studies in the USA have suggested that injuries due to wearing high heels (mainly sprains) have doubled over the past 10 years (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150521120924.htm). What might be interesting would be to gather better data here in the UK on the number of trip and fall accidents in the workplace (including falls on stairs, for example) experienced by female workers who wear high heels in the office.
Psychologists tell us that high heels are supposed to increase sexual attraction and contribute to a prototypically female gait. On the other hand it seems that the popularity of heels is in decline as nearly two-thirds of female footwear buyers prefer to wear flat shoes, compared to just over 10 per cent who prefer to wear high-heeled shoes.
Footwear is a very personal choice and thus employers requiring it or banning it might seem over-restrictive unless there is a good reason in either case. Some better epidemiological information - on both health effects and on risks to safety from high heel wearing - might actually help women themselves to have more confidence in the shoes choices they make for the workplace.
Just a thought.
Dr Karen McDonnell, occupational safety and health policy adviser
Posted: 1/25/2017 11:35:32 AM