CRAWFORD BOOTS - putting industrial workers’ right feet forward

Article I Rosie O’Keeffe

Photography I Jessica Schmierer Photography


In her 30 years servicing the north west NSW areas of Gunnedah and Tamworth as a podiatrist, Penny Crawford never believed her background would take her deep into the most remote underground mines in Western Australia, but for the past six years she has experienced firsthand these extreme working conditions as she’s travelled across Australia to develop her new venture.

After having many local underground miners visit her practice for advice and remedies for injuries caused by ill fitting footwear worn during their long 12-hour shifts, and identifying a lack of waterproof alternative to the basic gumboot that has been worn for generations, Penny got to work on developing and manufacturing a design with more comfort, stability and safety features.


And now, Crawford Boots, the industrial safety boots that can withstand the toughest conditions in underground mines and other wet area worksites, are distributed to workers in more than 40 underground mines across Australia. Handmade from 23 individual pieces of rubber, the boots have a reinforced heel area and steel capped toe for increased support. The lining of the boot is impregnated with antimicrobial and antifungal agents to assist in inhibiting mould, fungus and eradicating odours, and each boot undergoes waterproof testing by pumping 50kpa air into the boot whilst immersed in water.


“I knew that I wanted to develop a boot that would fit the characteristics of leather safety boots, but still have the waterproof capability of rubber gumboots. It was concerning that gumboots slip, or workers were using extra socks or innersoles to try and stop the movement. Leather boots eventually wear down and the material deteriorates causing cracking from the wetting and drying cycles,” Penny explains.


Penny, who lives on a 408ha cattle property at Carroll east of Gunnedah with her husband Mike, recalls selling her podiatry business to concentrate on developing the manufacture of the boots.


She explains that it was certainly a gamble, financing the first container of boots in the midst of the drought from funds generated from selling their stock.


“It was certainly a difficult time emotionally and financially, taking the risk to focus on establishing Crawford Boots when we had no income due to the drought, but it’s interesting to look back to what we have now developed from a concept to a tangible product,” Penny says.


She now manages supply chains in three different countries, and credits the success of the business to the industrial designer she had teamed with, and receiving a Commercialisation Australia grant which allowed Penny to develop her business skills and increase her network of experts to also give advice.


“The manufacturing component was always particularly important as we need to adhere to Australian and international standards and I knew I wanted to use a natural product.


“The Malaysian factory I use has exceptional quality control measures and it was so important to work with them in the research and development stage to ensure that we were developing a quality product.


“The boots have an insert to personalise the fit, it pushes the heel to the back of the shoe to stop the foot sliding, the lining fabric is microbial and antifungal, and there is reinforcement around the heel, a pocket that fits the insert, and a zipper.


“The longevity of the boot varies, but they will outlast every other boot by still being durable and safe to wear up to three times as long as alternative options.”


After developing the prototype, Penny arranged for 150 pairs of boots to be manufactured in a short production run, and worked with the local mine, Whitehaven, for workers to trial the safety and comfort of the product.


“I remember I was there at the 4am shift change, fitting the miners with their boots and we developed surveys for them to complete after a number of weeks. I knew that they weren’t going to change to a product unless it proved its value.


Penny says she finally ordered the first container of 2,000 pairs of boots in June 2018 and has since worked around the clock, undertaking more planning, logistics, organising freight, warehousing and despatching.


In 2019, Crawford Boots won the NSW Minerals Council NSW Mining HSEC Health Innovation Award in conjunction with Whitehaven Coal.


Interestingly, she says there have been offers for joint ventures and interest from other companies to purchase her design concept, however whilst it has been a foray not without its challenges, she’s not looking back.


“I really think you’ve got to back yourself. I really wouldn’t have realised the potential the business has and really identifying the need for the product.


“There have certainly been memorable experiences. I remember we drove to one mine site at Forrestania in Western Australia which took several hours because we couldn’t fly in or out, and another time we travelled to Olympic Dam in South Australia. It was the middle of January and 50 degrees, and I just remember wearing the full orange PPE (personal protective equipment)… Going underground is an amazing experience.


“The miners work hard – the average underground miner’s shift involves walking more than 10km through knee high water and on uneven ground. It’s certainly a different world.”


Penny believes it is important to be mindful of footwear choices, especially in labour-intensive environments.


“Creating these boots has been about recognising the need to be proactive rather than reactive and preventing injuries before they happen.


“Your feet are your foundations. I had seen short-term injuries such as fractures, sprains and trips and falls, as a result of instable boots, but there are also long-term effects in ill fitting footwear pulling on calf muscles, hamstrings and even causing back injuries and friction wounds.”


Just like other businesses, Penny has experienced challenges due to COVID-19, particularly in delivery timeframes, however she is continuing to research ways to expand Crawford Boots into designs specific to other industries and has already had interest from other industrial workplaces.


“We are entering into trial periods with water companies, we are working with Worksafe Victoria, and staff at some waste and recycling centres are also wearing the boots where they are handling chemicals, broken glass and other hazardous materials as well.


“We have also been working with the the University of NSW Smart Centre and Molycop Steel in using my boots with other rubber products in green steel production.”


Penny is also now investigating developing footwear for workers in other industries such as construction and agriculture.

“A lot of people involved in agriculture are already wearing my boots, but I do believe that there is an opportunity to design a boot that is more specific to their needs.”


And with patents now in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Europe and Canada, and design patents in the United States, Crawford Boots could soon be going global.


“I just love what I do. I love meeting new people and it is really satisfying when the miners do give me the feedback that the boots are making a difference. Mike and I have done so much travelling that we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do. There is certainly an exciting future ahead.”

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