Winter snow might look pretty when it’s falling, but it quickly turns into a safety hazard, especially when it piles up in front of your home. Whether on foot or in a car, you can quickly lose traction on snow-covered sidewalks and driveways. If you live in an area where snow presents a threat, you need to take care of it as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, shoveling snow can be hazardous, too.
For many people, shoveling can lead to falls, back injuries and even heart attacks. Before picking up a shovel, make sure you’re prepared for the task.
Shoveling Health Hazards
Snow removal can be hard on your body in more ways than one. Learn the risks so you can approach this chore with caution – or outsource it altogether.
Slips and Falls
Where there’s snow, there’s probably ice. And if the ground is slick, you might easily lose traction while shoveling.
During a fall, people typically try to catch themselves with their hands as they go down. That can lead to broken or sprained wrists.
Even if a fall doesn’t leave you with broken bones, you might be black and blue for a few days afterward. And for some, those bruises might not heal as quickly.
Falls can be especially dangerous for older people or those with health problems. It’s no laughing matter, either. Falls are the leading cause of injury and injury death in the 65+ crowd.
Back Pain and Other Muscle Strains
The most common shoveling injuries involve muscles, especially the ones in the lower back.
Individual flakes of snow are light and fluffy. Together on the driveway, though, they become a wet, heavy mass.
Lifting large scoops of snow may call on muscles that you don’t use very often. That could lead to a wrenched back that will lay you up for days.
Believe it or not, one of the most serious risks associated with shoveling is a heart attack. Shoveling is a lot of work. It can be more taxing than a run on the treadmill.
That exercise puts a strain on your heart, especially if you don’t normally engage in vigorous workouts. Your heart rate can rapidly accelerate during a shoveling session.
The cold environment can make it even more dangerous. That’s because in cold weather, your blood vessels constrict. When that happens, the blood flow to the heart decreases, and your blood pressure rises.
Combining high blood pressure with an elevated heart rate may spell disaster.
Suddenly, the blood flow to the heart might be gone, and with it, the oxygen on which the heart depends. That’s a critical situation. The medical term is a “myocardial infarction,” but you probably know it as a heart attack.
Age and Health Recommendations
Considering how risky shoveling can be, should anybody do it? Yes, with precautions, shoveling can be a reasonably safe activity for many people.
In general, that includes most people aged 55 or under. Those over 55 would typically do well to leave the job to others.
Not everyone under 55 is right for this task, though. Anyone with two or more medical conditions, such as being overweight or having high blood pressure, might want to sit shoveling out. In fact, you might opt not to do the shoveling yourself if you have even one such risk factor.
The best person to consult is your doctor. You and your healthcare provider can discuss your medical history and your current activity level. Together, you can determine whether you should do this job yourself or leave it to someone else.
And while it might seem a little extreme – or even silly – to ask your doctor whether you can clear your driveway of snow, it never hurts to check. It may prevent you from suffering unnecessarily from one of the risks we highlighted above.
Tips for Safe Shoveling
No matter your age, think smart when it comes to shoveling. Everyone should work to prevent shoveling-related injuries, though older folks should take special care to mitigate risk.
Before the snow hits, head to the hardware store to find the best shovel. Choose a lightweight variety, preferably one made of plastic rather than metal. Consider a model with ergonomic features so you won’t have to stoop while shoveling.
Phase two prep begins once the snow starts falling. First, don’t eat, drink caffeinated beverages or smoke right before a shoveling session. Doing so will put extra strain on your heart.
Instead, use the time before shoveling to warm up. Do gentle stretches to get the muscles in your arms and legs moving. Try walking in place, too. These activities can reduce the risk of muscle injuries.
And if it seems weird to warm up before snow shoveling, think of the activity as you would any other exercise. You wouldn’t go for a jog without preparing ahead of time, and shoveling snow is a definite workout. In fact, it’s a high-intensity exercise that works all of your major muscle groups. Plan accordingly.
Once you’ve warmed up, put on appropriate layers to stay at a comfortable temperature while outside. Layers help. With layers, you can remove one or two as the physical activity warms you up.
Don’t forget to wear shoes with traction. You may even want to put ice cleats over your boots to give you extra staying power.
Drink plenty of water, too. Bring your water bottle outdoors so that you can take drink breaks as you work.
Don’t delay. The easiest time to shovel is while the snow is still fresh. Otherwise, it can become packed, which makes it harder to move.
If the snow is supposed to last for several hours, consider multiple shoveling sessions. It’s easier to shovel a little bit of snow at a time than to do one big job at the end.
Tread carefully across slick surfaces. Use a penguin waddle if needed. You might feel silly, but it’s better than falling down. As you push the snow, keep your feet spread to hip-width. This stance will help you maintain your balance.
Focus on pushing snow rather than lifting it. When you do need to lift, put your legs into the task, not your back.
Keep the load on your shovel light. To reduce the temptation to pick up too much at a time, use a smaller shovel.
Pay attention to your energy level, too. If you start to get tired — or something feels off — take a break.
Even if you feel fine, take breaks every so often. Keep your shoveling sessions to half an hour long at most.
Pay attention to your body not only during shoveling but also afterward. If something doesn’t seem right, don’t brush it off.
Signs of a heart attack might include:
- Pain or pressure in the chest
- Pain or other unusual feelings in the stomach, arms, back, neck or mouth area
- Breathing problems
- Upset stomach
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
You could be having a heart attack even if you’re experiencing only a few or just one of these symptoms. If you suspect that something is wrong, call 911.
A Word About Snow Blowing
You might assume that, while shoveling can be dangerous, snow blowing is a safer alternative. For some people, that could be true, but there are still risks to consider.
First of all, snow blowers are heavy. Pushing this piece of equipment can be just as taxing as scooping snow. Hydrate ahead of time, take breaks as you go and pay attention to your body’s signals.
Remember that a snow blower is a powerful piece of machinery. Never stick your hand inside. If anything becomes jammed, first shut down the equipment. Then, use a stick to dislodge the jam instead of your hand.
This should go without saying, but snow blowers should only be used outdoors. Otherwise, you risk carbon monoxide poisoning. Make sure you’re outside — and the machine is off — before adding fuel, too.
Whether you prefer shoveling or snow blowing, make sure you do the job safely or pick someone else for the task. Perhaps that means recruiting a family member or hiring a neighborhood teenager. Snowplowing services may be another option depending on where you live. Plowing companies cost more, but the pros can typically clear a driveway in no time at all.