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Health and Safety: The scoop on snow shovelling safety

October 9, 2020  By Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)

As Canadians weathering cold, snowy winters, most of us are all too familiar with the arduous, strenuous job of shovelling snow. It can be hard work and, whether you shovel at work or at home, there are some tips you should consider to protect yourself from the hazards that can go along with the task: cold exposure; fatigue; muscular strains; back injury and potentially a more serious injury such as a heart attack.

Fit for the job? If it’s the first snowfall of the season and you are unaccustomed to shovelling, or you’re not in good physical shape, shovelling snow can be a strain on your heart and back. If you are older or have a history of back or heart problems, you should avoid the task altogether and delegate it to someone else or use a snow-blower to clear the snow.

Warm up. As with any exercise, consult with your doctor to ensure you are fit enough for this physically demanding activity. Before you begin shovelling, do warm-up stretches and flexing exercises to loosen up the muscles and prepare them for the job ahead.

Lighten the load with the right shovel. It’s important to match the shovel with the task. A snow shovel should be lightweight, about 1.5 kilograms or a little more than three pounds, and the blade shouldn’t be too large. For example, a large push-style shovel will move large amounts of snow but may result in lifting too much weight. A smaller blade shovel (25 to 35 centimetres or about 10-14 inches) should be used for lifting and throwing snow. The smaller blade will decrease the weight that is lifted and decrease the risk of injury. The handle of your shovel should be long enough so that you don’t have to stoop to shovel and the grip should be a D-shape handle made of plastic or wood – metal gets too cold. This kind of shovel will also help avoid awkward wrist positions. As a general guideline, the shovel (blade plus handle) should be elbow height when standing upright.

Bundle up. Wear several layers of warm, lightweight clothing that is easy and comfortable to move in. The inner layer should be made of material that allows perspiration to escape from the skin surface. Additional layers should provide insulation suitable to the weather and, if working in wet conditions, the outer layer should be waterproof. When choosing materials, avoid cotton clothing as it can get damp quickly and won’t keep you warm. Instead, wool and synthetic fibres make better options as they retain heat when wet. Make sure your head (especially your ears), feet and hands are well covered. Your winter boots should be warm, water-resistant and high-cut, and provide good traction. Gloves should be light and flexible and give you a good grip. If it is really cold, wear something over your mouth. And do not shovel at all if the temperature drops below minus 40 degrees Celsius, or below minus 25 to 30 degrees when it is windy.

Pace – don’t race. Shovelling snow in heavy-duty clothing can be as strenuous as weightlifting. You may want to get the job over with as fast as you can, but it is better to keep moving and work at a steady pace. A good recommended rate for continuous shovelling is usually considered to be around 15 scoops per minute. Shovelling is going to make you sweat and, if you stop, you could get a chill. The trick is to shovel efficiently without becoming fatigued.

Push – don’t lift Push the snow rather than lift it. If you must throw it, take only as much snow as you can easily lift. And remember, the wetter the snow, the heavier it is.

Face – don’t twist. Turn your feet to the direction you’re throwing – don’t twist at the waist. Do not throw the snow over your shoulder or to the side.

Get the scoop. Consider using a snow scoop to push the snow instead of lifting. The scoop helps you to move snow with less effort by riding up over the snow to allow you to move it without ever having to lift it.

Rest and recover. Take frequent breaks and drink some warm non-alcoholic fluids. In extreme conditions, such as very cold and windy weather, 15 minutes of shovelling should be followed by 15 minutes of rest.

Recognize the danger signs. Stop shovelling and call 911 if you feel discomfort or heaviness in the chest, arms or neck; unusual or prolonged shortness of breath; a dizzy or faint feeling; or excessive sweating or nausea and vomiting.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well being of workers in Canada by providing information, training, education, systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and injury and illness prevention.

This article is part of the Snow & Ice Week.
This article is part of the Fall & Winter Prep Week Week.

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