Snow shoveling dangers; safety tips

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Wednesday’s blizzard brought plenty of snow to shovel, but there are health risks to be aware of before you start clearing your driveway.

“We see a lot of back injuries,” said St. Luke’s Emergency Medicine Dr. Dylan Wyatt. “We see a fair amount of wrist and arm injuries. Broken bones from sliding or slipping while out shoveling.”

According to a peer-reviewed study published in 2010, an average of 11,500 people a year were treated for injuries related to snow shoveling. Within this 17-year study, 1,647 deaths were recorded. All were cardiac-related. 

“People can actually have some strain on their heart from just the degree of movement that’s required, the exertion that’s required for moving so much snow,” said Dr. Dylan. “I like to call it the ‘Minnesota stress test’ because it kind of takes your heart and puts it through a test of how much stress it can handle. And sometimes it reveals that, you know, there was a little bit of heart disease there and brings it to the surface.”

There are signs to look out for while shoveling, such as a shortness of breath. 

“If it really is profound, shortness of breath, kind of leaving you breathless, that’s not typical. You need to slow down quite a bit, or if even slowing down doesn’t help, indicates that it could possibly be something more like some strain on the heart,” Dr. Dylan explained. “It’s not always that classic chest pain that we hear about in the middle of your chest or the left side of your chest going up to your neck, going on your shoulder. That’s not always the case, especially in women, especially older women or people with diabetes. It can be more subtle, it can be burning, it can be just tightness. It can be just a pressure in the shoulder or the neck. You can be a little more subtle than that. So especially if it’s occurring while you are exerting yourself, it can be particularly concerning.”

Cold-related injuries are also common while shoveling. 

“When it’s hovering around 32 degrees or so, maybe not as concerning, but certainly even then, if you’re out shoveling snow that’s wet, your hands can get wet. If your gloves aren’t waterproof and you can, you know, sweat if you’re working really hard and then have to do something else outside, it’s not as exertional. You’ll be sweaty. That can lead to a pretty rapid drop in the core body temperature and especially in the extremities,” Dr. Dylan explained. “Whenever you get cold, the body kind of puts blood more towards your center and you can have frostbite fairly easily, especially the wind chill is very high. So it’s something that I don’t think is talked about enough in any kind of outside work, just something to keep, keep an eye on. If you start to feel your fingers going, it probably is not the best to push through what you’re doing. It’s probably best to warm up a little bit and then you can always go back out to it.”

Heavy, wet snow like this week’s storm makes shoveling even riskier. Here are some tips to prevent injury while shoveling:

  • Before you begin, warm up your muscles by bending side to side or by walking in place.
  • Wear layers and drink plenty of water.
  • When able, push the snow rather than lifting it. 
  • If you need to lift it, use a light, plastic shovel if able and lift with your legs. 
  • Take a break every 20-30 minutes of shoveling.
  • Shovel multiple times during a snowstorm rather than waiting for it to end.  
  • Stop shoveling and call 911 if you think you might be experiencing a heart attack.