, Gloucester, MA

December 5, 2012

The scoop on shoveling snow safely

On the Mend
Joe Divincenzo

---- — Hope all you want — it’s just not likely that you’ll see another winter like the one that just passed. And if the notoriously — accurate Farmer’s Almanac predictions come true, you could have quite the sore back before the tulips push through the tundra next spring.

Even if you’ve shoveled for years without a problem, it never hurts to know what could prevent an injury — so here are some of the snow-white truths to shoveling and some of the myths that you should put on ice when you grab your shovel in the next storm.

Myth — it’s OK to take layers off as you get hot.

Alaskan Eskimos use 97 different words for snow, few of which probably capture New England’s typical cement-like snow conditions. The rate of heart attacks triples in 35- to 49-year-old men — and worsens from there. The exertion of lifting heavier snow combined with the cold temperature causes constriction of blood vessels that deliver oxygen to your heart. Couple these physiologic facts with the strenuous nature the activity and you could be headed for trouble. So keep your coat on — it may save your life.

Truth – Cigarettes will kill you. Although it may be natural to smoke outside — especially during a tedious task — smoking constricts blood vessels around your heart and reduces the oxygen in your blood stream. If you’re smoking out in the cold and holding your breath while you hoist heavy snow, make sure you have your cell phone on you.

Myth — Chemical deicer prevents snow build-up.

Chemical deicer is most effective when it contacts snow and ice in an evenly spread pattern. Otherwise, it’ll just make a clumpy, sticky mess and won’t cut down the weight of what you have to lift.

Truth — Chemical deicer only works as fast as the temperature and conditions allow. Sprinkle and wait that’s the motto. It can take more than fifteen minutes for the full chemical reaction to take place and get the ice ready to chop.

Myth — Larger loads in the shovel means the job gets done faster.

The average shovelful of snow weighs about 16 pounds or more. Over the course of 10 minutes, the average man will shovel an even 2,000 pounds of snow. Shovel for an hour and you’re talking about a cumulative weight of over 10,000 pounds. Spend a few extra minutes and take lighter loads in each pass; your back will thank you.

Truth — Ergonomic shovels are safer for your spine. An ergonomic shovel decreases the distance between you and the snow without sacrificing leverage. They may be a bit pricier than a regular shovel, but well worth the investment.

Myth — Anyone can shovel as long as they take it easy.

The fact is that there are certain groups of people that are at a substantially higher risk for sustaining an injury when shoveling. If you’re older than 50, consult your doctor before shoveling. If you’re 60 or older, consult the neighborhood kids.

Truth — Using a slightly smaller shovel will cut your risk of injury. People that use smaller shovels often avoid back, neck and shoulder problems as well as reduce their risk of shoveling-related cardiac events. A smaller shovel pan means less snow in the shovel, and in turn, less strain on the body.

Myth – I wont get hurt if I push the snow off to the side instead of lifting it.

Pushing snow can land you in just as much trouble as lifting it if you’re not careful. New England is known for its pothole-ridden driveways and bumpy sidewalks. If the tip of the shovel hits a hole awkwardly, you could end up bent over the shovel, or even worse, on the ground.

Gloucester resident Joe DiVincenzo is a physical therapist and clinical specialist in manual therapy. He writes “On the Mend” weekly. Questions may be submitted by email to