- Studies show that about 28,000 people are treated in emergency rooms for snow shoveling injuries every year.
- Experts say soft tissue injuries are the most common followed by lacerations, fractures, and heart episodes.
- Experts caution that snow shoveling is a strenuous task and should only be done by people who are physically fit.
- They also recommend wearing proper shoes and stretching before shoveling.
The next time a winter storm is barreling across the nation with your neighborhood in its path, be ready to avoid danger.
We’re not talking just car accidents or frostbite here.
We’re talking about snow shoveling.
There’s reportedly an influx of people who flood emergency rooms during storms after injuring themselves doing that mundane winter chore.
In fact, about 137,000 people in the United States are treated at medical facilities every year for snow shoveling injuries.
Of those, about 28,000 people are treated in emergency rooms.
And about 100 of them die, mostly from heart attacks.
“After any storm, there’s an uptick in fractures due to falling and slipping on ice, strained back muscles, and in the worst case there’s an increase in heart attacks because the cold weather stresses the heart,” Chris Whalen, MD, president of South Shore Health Express, a group of urgent care centers in Massachusetts, told Healthline.
“We are very aware (when storms are coming) and are staffed to handle it,” he added.
Much of the injury risk, experts say, may come from people not being physically prepared for the task of shoveling, and from not preparing, dressing, and equipping oneself properly.
Strains, sprains, and fractures, Dr. Whalen said, are often caused by a poor choice in footwear.
“In general, people underestimate the ice under the snow and then fall,” he said.
Whalen suggests that those who live in an area that gets snow make sure their boots grip the ground well. And even then, be careful to test the surface under the snow first.
Charla R. Fischer, MD, FAAOS, orthopedic spine surgeon and spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), agrees.
“Not wearing shoes with the right grip” is the number one mistake the organization sees in injury cases, she told Healthline.
But there’s more a person should do to be safe and ready.
Among the most important, said Dr. Fischer, is take the time before the snow hits to build up a little strength, particularly by way of arm and core exercises.
One business that has to be on top of helping employees know how to shovel safely is the ski industry.
Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway, New Hampshire, has long helped employees learn and practice safe shoveling.
“You would think that living in New England with the need to do snow removal, it would be common sense on how to properly shovel snow, but it’s not,” Glen Harmon, director of operations at Cranmore, told Healthline.
“We do have a training topic for the proper way to shovel snow that is covered every year during our departments weekly safety topics,” he said.
Employees are taught not only the proper preparation for shoveling but the best techniques as well.
The proper process begins with stretching before shoveling.
Their stretching routine goes like this:
- Touch the sky. Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart and stretch both arms toward the ceiling. With both arms above your head, try to extend your left arm a little higher, than repeat with your right arm. Repeat several times.
- Side stretch. Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart and stretch both arms toward the ceiling. Without bending your body forward, place your left hand on your left thigh as you stretch your outstretched right arm and torso toward the left. Repeat for the right side.
- Back roll. Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, allowing a slight bend in the knee. Place your hands on the floor between your feet and let your torso hang, allowing a full stretch for several seconds. Slowly roll your back up, one vertebra at a time.
Harmon said learning this and putting it into practice helps avoid injury, particularly back injuries.
Once stretched, the employees are taught best practices for shovel techniques.
Most importantly, be sure to bend at the knees and use your legs just as you would for proper lifting.
Other tips include:
- Use your thigh as a “teeter-totter” for the shovel.
- Scoop small amounts with each shovel load.
- Move your feet in the direction you want to scoop instead of reaching by overextending your back.
- Don’t twist your body when you’re scooping or dumping. Turn your entire body if you need to rotate.
Whalen suggests that people who shovel do small amounts at a time and take breaks.
In particular, he suggests those over 50 take extra care.
“If you’re over 50, be very thoughtful,” he said. “Wear good boots and go slow. And if you have a history of any heart issues, discuss this with your doctor first.”
There’s another option, too: Have someone else to do it.
“Clearing snow places a great deal of stress on the heart, so if you have a medical condition or don’t exercise regularly, you should talk with your doctor before shoveling or snowblowing,” the AAOS advises on its website. “You may also want to consider hiring someone to remove the snow rather than doing it yourself.”