Probably the most common question we get asked in our line of work is "What kind of safety toe is best?". I don't think that that is surprising in the least, most people who have never worn safety footwear only have a vague idea of what the differences between the options are. To answer that question, we first have to look at the types of safety toes most widely available on the market today, which are; steel, alloy, composite, and carbon composite. The first thing to recognize is that all of these types of toes must meet the exact same ASTM safety standards; ASTM F2413-11 I/75 C/75. This means that no matter what type of toe you have, it will be rated for a 75 ft/lb impact and up to 2,500lbs of compressive force. So knowing all that, what advantages or disadvantages do each have?
Steel toes are the most common type of toe cap on the market today. Steel is the most cost effective safety toe available, meaning that there is little increase in the cost of a shoe using a steel toe. Steel toe caps also offer a lower profile allowing for better clearance and appearance over a traditional composite toe cap, making them ideal for athletic and dress style safety footwear. On the other hand, steel toe caps are marginally (~1.5 oz) heavier than a traditional composite toe. Steel toe caps also transmit heat and cold at a much faster rate than composite toe caps.
Alloy Toe caps are in much the same boat as steel ones. They are a thin profile, ideal for use in athletic and dress style shoes. Alloy toes are also somewhat lighter than a steel toe. They have the same thermal downside as steel, in addition to costing slightly more than a steel toe.
Composite toe caps are the second most common type fo toe cap on the market. There is a long living myth about the significant weight difference between composite and steel toes; while composite toes are lighter, the overall makeup of shoes make that difference negligible for most footwear. Composite toes have to be roughly twice as thick as a steel toe to meet the same rating, making them difficult to use in athletic or dress shoes without looking somewhat bulbous. Where composite toes really shine are in cold environments. Composite transfers heat at a much slower rate than steel or alloy, making them ideal in boots for outdoor use or insulated boots. Composite toes also have the advantage of being able to go through a metal detector so long as the rest of the construction of the footwear is non-metallic.
Carbon Composite toe caps are the newest style in the mainstream market. Often advertised under proprietary names such as Wolverine's CarbonMax or Hytest's Hy-Light Nanotech, these are the most technologically advanced of the toe caps. Offering all of the benefits of a composite toe cap, while retaining the slim profile available from a steel or alloy toe cap. Keep in mind that while these are very light, the overall construction of the shoe is the final determining factor of the weight of footwear.
So what should you wear?
The short answer? What feels good to you.
The long answer? What you wear should be determined by the job you are doing and the overall features of the shoe. If you are looking for the lightest shoe available, keep in mind that the lightest shoe in the style you are looking for may NOT be a composite toe boot after all.
The most important thing to remember is that you have to wear these for eight, ten, or twelve hours straight, and at the end of the day, comfort and safety are more important than what your toe caps are made out of.