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  • Monika Getty

Shoveling Snow Safely

This weekend we got a pile of snow! It was one of those winter storms where you have to shovel several times a day so you didn't have to do several feet at once. If you're lucky enough to have a snow blower (or have a kind neighbour that does), snow removal isn't too bad if you're careful. For the rest of us, shoveling snow by hand is one of winter's harsh realities. According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, over 118,000 people were treated for injuries sustained from manually removing snow in 2007 (and that's not including those strains and sprains many don't report but still sustain). In the same year, about 15,000 people were injured using snowblowers. Types of injuries can include sprains and strains, especially in the back and shoulders, as well as cuts and even finger amputations. Yikes!

Shoveling snow requires a lot of bending and heavy lifting, especially with wet, heavy snow. If you're not regularly active, have heart or back issues, or are over a certain age, you need to be extra careful or avoid snow shoveling all together and get someone else to do it. The mix of cold temperatures and physical exertion increases the workload on the heart, which can increase the risk of a heart attack in some people. However, just because you're young and fit doesn't mean you need to be any less careful or are less prone to injury. To prevent injury while removing snow, follow these tips to keep you safe:

Warm up. Warm up your muscles by doing some range of motion exercises, walking for a few minutes, and doing some light stretching for about 10 minutes before attempting to shovel.

Prepare properly. Don't shovel snow after eating a big meal or while smoking, as these activities can put extra stress on the heart. Drinking alcohol before or during shoveling can dull your perception of how cold it is as well as how much strain your body is under. Also, if it's bitterly cold or windy out, let the snow be until it warms up a bit. Cold weather can increase heart rate and blood pressure, can make blood clot more easily as well as constrict arteries, which decreases blood supply. This is true for everyone, even healthy people.

Wear the proper clothing. It's best to wear layers of warm clothing; the layer closest to your body should be a type of fabric that doesn’t retain sweat, but rather wicks it away. This will help keep your core warm and avoid chills from damp clothing. A scarf, hat, mittens or gloves, thick socks and warm waterproof boots with good traction are also a must. Try to keep your mittens or gloves dry, as dampness decreases its ability to keep you warm and insulated.

Pace yourself. Take your time, taking breaks often and replenishing with non-alcoholic fluids to prevent dehydration. Safety is more important than speed. You don't have to do it all at once; it's better to start shoveling early and often rather than waiting to do it all in one go. Freshly fallen snow is lighter than snow that has started to melt.

Pay attention to your body. If you start to feel muscle pain in your back, shoulders, or arms, it’s smart to stop shoveling and give your muscles a chance to rest. Stay alert for chest pain or pressure, pain or discomfort in other parts of your upper body, such as your jaw, arms, or back, shortness of breath, nausea or lightheadedness. These can all be signs of a heart attack so stop shoveling immediately and call for help. Also keep aware of signs of cold related illness such as frostbite: skin that’s red, has a white or grayish-yellow colour, feels unusually firm or waxy, or feels numb or painful. If you notice any of these, go inside and slowly start rewarming the affected areas using warm (not hot) water, without rubbing. Signs of hypothermia can include confusion, slurred speech, shivering, arm and leg stiffness, and slow reaction times. If you suspect hypothermia, call for help right away. Do not work to the point of exhaustion.

Choose the right shovel. Use a shovel that is right for your height and strength; don't use one that's too heavy or long for you. The grip/handle should be made of plastic or wood as a metal one retains the cold. In general the shovel (blade plus handle) should be elbow height when standing upright to prevent stooping. Shovels that have a bend in the shaft are more ergonomically designed to be easier on your back when used properly.

Use good form. Push the snow rather than lifting it. If you must lift, lift small amounts only. Keep your back straight and lift with your legs, bend your knees and squat; lift by straightening your legs without bending at the waist. Keep the heaviest part of the shovel close to your body near your center of gravity and do not extend your arms to throw the snow. Don't twist and throw the snow over your shoulder or off to the side; instead, walk to where you want to dump the snow and face the direction you are placing it to avoid twisting.

Prevent falls. If the ground is icy or slippery, spread sand or salt to create better foot traction. Wear shoes or boots with slip-resistant soles or add traction with cleats you can slip on over your boots.

Shoveling snow is a strenuous activity than can take a toll on your body and your health. Remember what others have learned the hard way and shovel smartly and safely!

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