Orthopaedic surgeons offer tips to ensure safe shoveling, snow blower use
Fallen snow must be cleared regularly to ensure pedestrian and driver safety. However, if done improperly, shoveling or snow blower use can cause serious injury to the back, shoulders, hands or feet.
According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission:
- In 2010, more than 148,000 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms, doctors’ offices, clinics and other medical settings for injuries sustained while shoveling or otherwise removing ice and snow manually.
- In that same year, more than 21,500 were injured using snow blowers.
- Types of injuries can include sprains and strains, particularly in the back and shoulders, as well as lacerations and finger amputations.
“Shoveling snow involves a lot of bending, heavy lifting and repetitive motion,” says Roxanne Wallace, MD, orthopaedic surgeon and spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). “For older Americans, and individuals who do not regularly exercise, shoveling can cause pain and injury to the back, and shoulder and arm muscles, and increase the risk for a heart attack.”
For individuals who feel they are physically healthy enough to shovel, Dr. Wallace suggests taking frequent rest breaks, and drinking plenty of water and fluids. If you feel pain, stop shoveling, and find a friend, family member or professional to resume the task.
Using a snow blower is not as physically taxing as shoveling; however, the rapid, powerful blades of a running snow blower have the potential to severely injure hands or feet.
“Hands or feet should be kept away from the undersurface of a running snow blower at all times,” added Dr. Wallace. “And do not ever use your hands to address a jammed snow blower. Even if the machine is powered off, the blades may rotate forcefully after the jam is cleared, potentially causing injury. Children should never be allowed to operate or touch a snow blower. Snow blowers should not be used when children are nearby.”
The AAOS has recommendations to help you stay safe while clearing snow:
- Check with your doctor. Because this activity places high stress on the heart, speak with your physician first. If you have a medical condition or do not exercise regularly, consider hiring someone to remove the snow.
- Dress appropriately. Light, layered, water-repellent clothing provides both ventilation and insulation. It is also important to wear the appropriate hat, as well as mittens or gloves and thick, warm socks. Take a break if you feel yourself getting too hot or too cold.
- See what you are shoveling/snow blowing. Make sure that your hat or scarf does not block your vision. Expect icy patches and uneven surfaces. Avoid falls by wearing shoes or boots that have slip-resistant soles.
- Clear snow early and often. Begin when a light covering of snow is on the ground to avoid trying to clear packed, heavy snow. If the snow is wet, lift smaller, lighter amounts with each shovel load.
- Pace yourself. Take frequent breaks and replenish fluids to prevent dehydration. If you experience chest pain, shortness of breath or other signs of a heart attack, seek emergency care, such as by calling 9-1-1.
- Use a shovel that is comfortable for your height and strength. Do not use a shovel that is too heavy or too long for you. Consider buying a shovel that is specially designed to prevent too much stooping. Space your hands on the tool grip to increase your leverage.
- Push the snow instead of lifting it, as much as you can. If you must lift, take small amounts of snow, and lift it with your legs: Squat with your legs apart, knees bent and back straight. Lift by straightening your legs, without bending at the waist. Then walk to where you want to dump the snow; holding a shovelful of snow with your arms outstretched puts too much weight on your spine.
- Do not throw the snow over your shoulder or to the side. This requires a twisting motion that stresses your back.
- Never stick your hands or feet in the snow blower! If snow becomes impacted, stop the engine and wait at least five seconds. Use a solid object to clear wet snow or debris from the chute. Beware of the recoil of the motor and blades after the machine has been turned off.
- Do not leave the snow blower unattended when it is running. Shut off the engine if you must walk away from the machine.
- Watch the snow blower cord. If you are operating an electric snow blower, be aware of where the power cord is at all times, so you do not trip and fall.
- Add fuel before starting the snow blower. Never add fuel when the engine is running or hot. Do not operate the machine in an enclosed area.