Should deminers wear blast-boots (mine-boots)?

 

 

A visitor to the Database of Demining Accidents site looked through the accident data and asked, “Please explain why deminers do not wear mine-proof boots….”

This is my answer.

The Humanitarian Demining industry has discussed this a few times and (despite heavy sales pitches by Canadian and UK blast boot vendors), the boots have been rejected for two main reasons.

1) In general, field people agree that there is something wrong with the idea that a deminer who has cleared the ground needs to wear foot protection in order to walk on it. If he is working properly, the ground should be cleared before his foot falls there. If he believes it may not be, he should clear it, not try to protect against the consequences – because the civilian who uses the land tomorrow will not have any chance of protecting against “the consequences”. Exceptions to this argument may occur during survey and CASEVAC, when weight spreading “snow-shoe” protection has occasionally been tried. These are little used, probably because they often make the wearer slow and unstable on rough or overgrown land.

Anyone wearing inflatable "boots" needs to walk like a duck over smooth ground without significant undergrowth and is deliberately leaving mines behind - so is definitely not engaged in Humanitarian Demining. They were designed for rapid minefield breeching in combat and that is their only regular use.

2) None of the available blast boots fully protect against any AP blast mine, and the independent scientific evidence suggests they are useless against the size of mine that most deminers are clearing. See United States Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR) Lower Extremity Assessment Programme (LEAP)- later aparently renamed Lower Extremity Amputation Prevention - study for the best scientific evidence of this (to date). Other studies have been made by manufacturers – and lack the objectivity of genuinely disinterested inquiry.

A WELCO blast boot after the wearer stepped on a PMA-3 (35g Tetryl) in Bosnia. The wearer lost his foot. DDASaccident.pdf

Because blast-boots (mine-boots) are unproven, they are awarded the lowest International Mine Action Standards IMAS requirement—one that says that a user of the IMAS “may” like to consider their use. Even that low level of requirement is made conditional on there being new evidence that they are effective.

On blast-resistant footwear, the IMAS reads:

“...organisations may consider providing blast proof boots for the protection of feet and lower limbs where there is a significant risk that cannot be reduced by SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures] alone, provided that the blast boots being considered are proven to be effective in reducing that risk…. The effectiveness and operational benefits of mine boots is still a contentious issue… only one independent trial (U.S. State Department sponsored) has been conducted, which identified that … the benefits are unproven. There is currently a danger that they offer “false security.”.

……………….

All that sounds conclusive, BUT....

In August 2006 I checked the new accident data to see whether there was additional evidence of blast boot effectiveness… and I find that there was some positive evidence of efficacy – with mines containing the smallest amounts of High Explosive.

Alongside actual accident reports, I gather stories. For example, I have gathered anecdotal evidence of boots providing protection against the 30g Tetryl P4Mk2 and also with 100+g PE filled Tiger mines in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, these accidents involved the military and so I have been unable to get any documented evidence to support the tales. My own experience leads me to doubt tales involving the Jony-95 PE filled mine, but the P4 stories are credible.

The $10 overboot shown above is reported to have been successful for the army in Sri Lanka. This example is shown after stepping on a P2/4.

It is always irritating to get a photo and no written report to back it up….

- but I do have well documented evidence for the success of the Singapore (BFR) boot above - against a P4 sitting on the ground surface in Sri Lanka. This BFR boot (with its minimally raised sole) survived the blast looking like this:

DDASaccident.pdf

More important, its wearer survived with:

“a) laceration of the distal part of the sole of the right foot and multiple lacerations at the roots of the toes.

b) Fractures of bodies of all the metatarsals of the right foot.

c) Fractures of the proximal phalanges of the 1 st to the 4 th toes of the right foot.

d) Dislocation of the ankle with talus slipping forwards.”

The accident occurred in August 2004. The victim "was operated on four times” and has had subsequently physiotherapy. He kept his foot, got his compensation, and has started a bakery.

The evidence of this accident (and the anecdotal evidence from the Sri Lankan army) appears to contradict the findings of the LEAP study… Perhaps there were reasons for the LEAP study’s findings to have been very reserved – leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions?

For those who don’t know, the US Department of Defence LEAP study involved testing a range of supposedly blast-resistant boots being worn on real legs – the limbs of cadavers. If you compare the LEAP results against the outcome of real events recorded in the Database of Demining Accidents there is a large discrepancy. The severity of injuries recorded in LEAP (and the predictions of subsequent surgical intervention that would be required) is consistently far worse than the evidence from real accidents. This implies that something was wrong with the way that the LEAP group drew conclusions, if not the testing methods.

I suspect that the testing methods were ill-conceived. The cadavers were of very old people and the frozen/thawed corpses had been cut about to fit pressure transducers internally. This may have made it inevitable that greater damage than was realistic would be recorded.

Or perhaps the error was introduced during the post-test assessment? The medical specialists may have been too strict about the need to amputate high to avoid infection following the blasts,

Alternatively, the explosive charges may not have accurately simulated mines.

Whatever the reason, the "proof" that the LEAP study gives over the pointlessness of wearing blast-boots is brought into real question because its results do not come close to matching reality.

There may be a point in wearing blast boots (especially low-profile boots that do not make the wearer clumsy) in areas with very small blast mines… perhaps for survey, CASEVAC or even QC.

In 2008, I was working in Jordan in a mixed minefield where the mine most likely to be missed was the M14 - an AP mine with a very small metal content. The National Authorities wanted the deminers to wear blast boots - and they reluctantly complied. The BFR mine boots they used were low and lightweight. I refused to countenance wearing the BFR mine-boot which, in my opinion, offers false confidence and is no better than an ordinary work boot (which can provide some protection against small mines). So when I was asked to assess the wearability of the AEGIS 100 mine boot, I agreed.

I used the AEGIS boots for three days while conducting my work in the minefield during March 2008. No fee was payable, which made my assessment as independent as possible.

The boots provided were a lightweight inner "slipper" of TABRE material, a rigid outer boot with high sole, and gaiters fitting on the boot and extending to the knee.

My previous work on all aspects of PPE, including foot protection, led me to accept that the high stand-off afforded by the boot's sole would provide significant protection against the blast associated with the M14 (containing less than 30g Tetryl). In the event of stepping on one of these while wearing the boots, I would expect injury to be reduced to simple broken bone(s) that could be treated without amputation. This expectation could not be tested, but did justify my decision to wear the boots during work inside this particular minefield.

I did not assess the blast performance of the sole or of the unique TABRE blast absorption material. My assessment was limited to the comfort and ergonomics of wearing the full assembly during work. To this end, on each occasion I wore the boots for a minimum of three hours and wore the complete products including “gaiters”. Other staff wore the low-soled alternative boot (BFR). 

I first wore the full boot assembly in UK for one day while working. Much of my work was desk-bound. Every time I walked I was very conscious of the difference, but I found that I could walk easily and negotiate steps and slopes without a problem. The lack of a tight fit around the ankle did not lead to my foot “slipping” inside the boot.

AEGIS boots on legs

The assessment was made while conducting other tasks - which included testing a water-jet system for exposing mines and wearing the ROFI mask.

weaing boots, armour and mask inside the minefield

Inside the minefield I had to walk on uneven soft ground and sometimes on rocky ground. There were occasions when I felt unstable, but could correct my posture easily and I was never in danger of falling over. Had there been dense grass or undergrowth, this may have been different.

I found that I quickly became accustomed to the boots and could walk and conduct my work – which included testing new equipment – with no difficulty. Getting up and down from a kneeling position required a change in technique that came as a surprise. Kneeling for longer than a few minutes felt uncomfortable at the ankle – and a different posture would be necessary for persons who kneel for lengthy periods while working.

My assessment was not scientific or rigorous, so its conclusions can only be presented as subjective opinion – overlaid by an attempt to be objective.

The boots can be worn for most tasks in the minefield that do not involve negotiating thick grass or undergrowth. With that constraint, instability need not be a problem.

Initial concerns about trapping blast from larger AP mines inside the “tube” of the gaiter are satisfied by their design as a separate unit, which I think makes this unlikely.

The boot and gaiter combination is very warm to wear for protracted periods. I believe that the gaiters would protect against severe blast injury to the other leg (where muscle loss has sometimes led to the need for double amputations).

The boot and gaiter assembly was difficult to put on and take off.

I made some recommendations for design changes that might overcome the minor difficulties I found in fitting and removing the boots.

While I do not think that the boots added significantly to my protection inside the minefield, I am confident that they did not add to my risk. The body armour being worn was clumsy and badly designed but its failings also did not add to my risk. In my opinion, the mask did add to my risk by rendering it very difficult to see my feet or communicate with others.

 

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