Shovelling Snow Safely
One of the things that I love about winter is all of that beautiful white snow. Well, I actually like looking at it. Driving in it and shovelling it is another matter. Keeping your sidewalk and your driveway clear is not only recommended for personal safety and convenience, it is also your civic duty. Snow shovelling is not without its risks and hazards though. Working in cold temperatures makes it harder to breathe, putting strain on our heart and circulatory system and on the lungs. As well, cold tight muscles are far more likely to be strained than warm, relaxed muscles. Top this with the fact that slippery conditions add yet one more hazard to this activity. If you combine all of this with heavy lifting, you can see the risks that shovelling poses to your muscles, tendons and joints. Areas like the neck and back are the most prone to injury, particularly the very low back where the back meets the pelvis[i]. To minimize your shovelling risks, consider the following suggestions.
- Choosing a Shovel- Plastic shovel blades are lighter than a metal. Smaller blades provide for better body ergonomics and reduce strain on the body. Ergonomic shovels with a bent shaft are excellent. Research[ii] indicates that people using a bent shaft snow shovel, bend forward sixteen percent less than they do with a straight shaft shovel putting less strain on the back and the heart.
- Grip– Make sure your hands are at least 12 inches apart. This will increase your leverage and reduce body strain.
- When possible try pushing the snow instead of lifting – Niagara doesn’t typically get heavy snowfalls, however if you are shovelling in a snow belt area, you might want to consider a snow pusher or a snow blower of some description. A snow pusher (pictured here) is a simple device allowing you to move a lot of snow with no lifting whatsoever.
- Practice Proper Lifting- When you must lift, squat with your legs apart, knees bent and back straight (as in Figure 1). Lift with your legs. Do not bend at the waist (as in Figure 2). Step toward the direction in which you are throwing the snow (as in Figure 1). Do not twist as you lift. Some of the most serious back injuries result from this movement.
- Keep your arms close to your body. Holding a shovel of snow with your arms outstretched puts much more weight on your spine.
- Shovel early and often. If you don’t have this luxury, then tackle snow in two stages by skimming snow off of the top first.
Stop occasionally to do standing extension exercises by placing your hands on the back of your hips and bend backwards slightly for several seconds. Because you bend forward so much when shovelling, you need to reverse this by straightening up and bending backwards slightly.
- Dress appropriately. This depends completely upon the outside temperature, plus as you exert yourself you will need less clothing. Dress in layers removing outer layers as necessary.
- Wear proper footwear with good tread to help avoid slipping or falling.
- Check with your doctor. If you have a medical condition or do not exercise regularly, talk with your doctor before shovelling. If necessary, hire someone to remove the snow.
- Pace yourself. Shovelling snow is exercise. Begin slowly as you warm up your body and your muscles. Listen to your body, take breaks, and replenish fluids to prevent dehydration.
- Finally, if shovelling snow presents a challenge for you, consider buying a snow blower or an electric snow shovel. I was skeptical of these little power shovels at first, but I have several clients who find them to be very effective at snow removal.
Enjoy our great Canadian winter snow experience but approach this strenuous activity with caution and prudence, and be prepared ahead of time so that you are ready for when the snow arrives.
[i] This Cornell University study noted “…when handling heavy snow with a shovel, the L5/S1 disc (i.e. the low back) has been identified as the weakest link in the body segment chain. The most severe injuries and pain are likely to occur in this low back region.”
[ii] The Liberty Mutual Research Centre for Safety and Health in Hopkinton, MA