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Safe Shoveling – Tips for Avoiding Injury

We’ve had amazingly mild weather so far this Winter, and while we might hope it continues, we all know that at some point soon Mother Nature will bring us some real winter weather… complete with snow – heavy, wet, clumpy, sticky, icy, frozen, in-the-way snow.

Here are some tips to prevent injuries while shoveling the white stuff:

1) Use the right Shovel, and use the shovel right…

Ergonomic snow shovels are easily purchased at most stores, and it’s worth picking one up.  As with any lift , make a conscious effort to engage (tighten) your stomach muscles when lifting the shovel, and when bending, make sure to keep your knees slightly bent and arch your back very slightly while the shovel blade is on the ground.  Look for:

  • A shovel with a curved handle and adjustable handle length which will minimize painful bending
  • A lightweight, plastic blade helps reduce the amount of weight that you are moving

2) Warm Up Thoroughly

Cold, tight muscles are more prone to injury than warmed up, flexible muscles.  To help prevent shovelling injuries, do a 5 minute warm-up, and be sure to include a brisk walk, marching in place, or another full-body activity.  Make sure to also:

  • Stretch your low back and hamstrings (the large muscles in the back of the thigh) with some gentle stretching exercises
  • Stretch your arms and shoulders with a body hug or arm circles for 30 – 60 seconds.

3) Use Ergonomic Lifting Techniques

Whenever possible, push the snow rather than lift it.  When lifting the snow shovel is necessary, make sure to use ergonomic lifting techniques:

  • Always face towards the object you intend to lift – have your shoulders and hips both squarely facing it.
  • Bend at the hips, not the lower back, and push the chest out, pointing your body forward. Then, bend your knees and lift with your leg muscles, keeping a straight back.
  • Keep your loads light and do not try to lift an object that is too heavy for you.
  • If you must lift, grip the shovel with one hand as close to the (full) blade as comfortably possible and the other hand on the handle (handle and arm length may influence technique).  When gripping the shovel, try to keep your hands about 12 inches apart to provide greater stability and minimize the chances of injuring your low back.
  • Avoid twisting the back to move the snow to its new location – always pivot your whole body to face the new direction.
  • Keep the heaviest part of the object close to your body at your center of gravity – do not extend your arms to throw the snow.  Better to dump it than to fling it, so walk to the new location to deposit the snow rather than reaching or tossing.
  • Try to pre-tighten your abdominals before any lifts

4) Pace Yourself

Shoveling IS exercise! So think about it like a workout: shoveling small amounts of snow frequently is less strenuous than shovelling a large pile at once. This may take longer, but will go a long way towards preventing injury.  Here are tips for spacing out the job to stay safe:

  • In deep snow, remove a few inches off the top at a time, rather than attempting to shovel the full depth at once.
  • When shoveling, take a break for a minute or two every 10-15 minutes or if you feel overworked at any point. Use this opportunity to stretch your arms, shoulders, and back to keep them warm and flexible.

5) Prevent Slipping

Shoveling in slippery conditions can lead to slips and/or falls and strains that can put you out of commission.  Keep ‘rubber side down’:

  • Slips need grips!  Shoes or boots with good treads will help to minimize injuries from slipping; using external boot grippers can help as well.
  • Spreading sand, rock salt, or kitty litter on your sidewalk or driveway will increase traction and reduce the likelihood of slipping on the ice.

6) Use a Snow Blower (and use it right)!

When used correctly, a snow blower can put less stress on your lower back than shovelling, but you need to avoid stressing your back by using the power of your legs to push the machine, just as you would a shovel:

  • Keep your back straight and knees bent when pushing the snow-blower.

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