Shoveling snow: How to clear heavy, wet snow safely

About 100 Americans on average die each year because of snow-removal exertion with another 11,500 injuries requiring a trip to the emergency room, a study over a 16-year period found, but taking time to stretch before heading out and other precautions can help make sure you finish the job safely.

“Snow shoveling is an athletic activity and the repetitive lifting and twisting can put lots of strain on the lower back,” said Dr. Michael Gallizzi, a robotic spine surgeon with OrthoONE at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree. “The right approach, the right shovel, the right preparation are all important. Stretching is taken for granted, but it’s key.”

Here are a few other tips to consider before you start flinging snow:

  • Have the right type of shovel. The ones with bent shafts are good because they’re designed to reduce the amount of work you do by 16%, according to Gallizzi.
  • Spray the shovel with Pam or some other oil-based spray to prevent the snow from sticking. It makes for easier snow tossing.
  • Shovel frequently as the snow flies rather than wait until the end. A few inches at a time is far easier on the body.
  • Bend those knees. Always use your leg muscles to lift rather than bending at the waist. Keep the back straight as you stand and tighten the tummy core muscles each time.
  • Hold the shovel close to the body with one hand close to the snow load as a fulcrum, lightening what you lift. Make short tosses of snow rather than long ones, which can wrench the back or shoulder.
  • Faced with snow depths of a foot or more, pick up the snow in slices of 3-inch to 4-inch segments until reaching the ground.
  • Move smoothly and evenly without rushing, taking frequent breaks.
  • Have water nearby to drink. Keep your hat on to maintain body warmth.
  • Head indoors immediately if your chest starts hurting or you feel lightheaded or short of breath.
  • Be wary of classic signs of a heart attack: squeezing pain in the chest, pain that radiates up to your left shoulder and down the left arm, or cold sweat.
  • Walk carefully as you shovel, “like a penguin,” emergency physician Dr. Eric Lavonas at Denver Health Medical Center said. Keep the stride short and feet close together.
  • Clear snow from in front of downspouts which can freeze and back up. Clear street gutters for melt-off to flow more easily. Pick sunny spots for the snow piles so they melt faster.

The average weight of a shovel full of heavy wet snow, according to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, is about 16 pounds. The men in the study moved about 12 shovels per minute. In 10 minutes, that’s 2,000 pounds.

“People need to respect the storm,” Lavonas said. “Shoveling in a big storm is hard work.”

Picking up a shovel and moving hundreds of pounds of snow, particularly after doing nothing physical for several months, can put a big strain on the heart, Lavonas said.

“About 1,000 people a year have a heart attack from snow shoveling,” he said. “The human body isn’t meant to go from sitting on the couch to heavy physical work without some kind of warmup.”

The twisting motion from tossing snow can also cause problems, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Push rather than lift if possible.

Cold air has debilitating effects on oxygenating the blood. That means ensuring you’re well dressed for the weather, wearing adequate clothing to stay warm but to evaporate whatever sweat from the exertion. Gloves with liners are frequently a good idea as well as a face covering for very cold air.

If it’s sunny, wear sunglasses to prevent snow blindness.

Sore backs or arms are fairly common the next day, Gallizzi said, but if symptoms persist, “you’ll want to have it checked out, especially if it doesn’t feel right.”

Home-show expert Bob Vila offers a good approach to shoveling: Have a plan.

People tend to start at the top of their driveway and work their way toward the street. With heavy snow, that simply puts the extra work as you move toward the street, leaving the greatest amounts to be hauled at the end.

The best method, according to Vila, is to clear a path down the middle, then work from there to the sides, leaving less snow to be moved with each pass.

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