Des Moines University Clinic Health Topics: Ergonomics to prevent snow shoveling injuries

Safe Shoveling: Ergonomics to help prevent snow shoveling injuries

Winter weather is here, and it’s never too early to prepare for the freezing temperatures, ice and snow. Take the time to make sure you’re safe on slick, icy surfaces to make the most of the wintery months ahead.


The right snow shovel can help prevent snow shoveling injuries

Being well prepared can help you avoid injuries to your muscles or bones while shoveling. It’s never too early to think about what equipment will keep you safe as you chip, shovel and walk in snow and on ice this winter season. According to a 17-year study that took place between 1990 and 2006, there were an estimated 11,500 snow shovel-related injuries and medical emergencies treated annually in U.S. emergency rooms (American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 2011 Jan;29(1):11-7).

Shop around for the best snow shovel options and get one with a shaft that is the right length; if it’s too short, you will have to bend too much to lift, which puts stress on the spine. Keeping your back straight while lifting is the best way to prevent injury. If the shaft is too long, the weight at the end is heavier and further away from the body, which heightens the compressive forces through the spine, putting you at a higher risk for injury. As you shop, try the shovel out. Hold it and bend at the hips and knees, keeping your back straight as if getting ready to load a shovel with snow. Are you able to comfortably reach the ground without rounding your back? Is the blade of the shovel close enough that you can control it when it’s loaded with snow without it dropping toward the ground?


Dress appropriately for the weather

It is important to stay warm while you shovel—I recommend having all your winter clothes ready ahead of time: hat, gloves, boots, scarf, and insulated clothing. Ice cleats on your boots reduce the risk of falling and sustaining a head or shoulder injury, a fracture, or other musculoskeletal injury. These can be very helpful if you’re shoveling on a slope, or if the surface is slick with ice. Take time to warm up your arms and legs with simple stationary moves, such as marching in place and performing shoulder circles. It’s easy to forget that staying hydrated in the winter is just as important as when the weather is warm. Drink plenty of water. This lubricates the joints and helps the muscles function at their best.


Protect your back and neck muscles with the right technique

Proper technique is important to protect the back and neck. Bend and straighten your body at the knees and hips and keep your back straight. The leg muscles are stronger and larger than back muscles, so let your legs do the work to lift and lower the snow. To protect your back, try to avoid twisting your torso or hunching your shoulders; keep your shoulders and pelvis in the same plane and move your feet to turn the body when needed. Keep the snow load close to your body to avoid straining your shoulders, neck and elbows, and walk where you want to move the snow rather than twisting and throwing.


Take breaks when you start to feel tired

When you start to feel fatigue, take a break from shoveling—you’re much more likely to use bad form and injure yourself when your body is tired. Stopping for a 10- to 15-minute break every so often may be a good idea if you don’t exercise routinely or are recovering from an injury or illness. Take cues from your body—if something feels unusual, painful, or if you get tired, it might be time to stop.


Basic exercises to build strength for shoveling season

Simple strength training before the winter snow is a great way to prepare for the icy months ahead. The intensity you should train with depends on your specific abilities, but regardless of your fitness level, chair squats are a good exercise for strong snow-lifting legs and bent over rows are an easy way to strengthen back and shoulders. Avoid lifting and rounding your shoulders toward your ears during this exercise (the same guideline you want to follow for neck and shoulders when lifting a shovel loaded with snow). Strengthening your core is very important as well; exercises that work your stomach, hip and back muscles—like bridges and planks—are a good way to get stronger.

Don’t let the snow keep you inside this winter; tackle the season with strength and ease through proper research, technique and training!


Our exceptional team of physical therapists at the Des Moines University Clinic can work with you to develop a strength and exercise program designed specifically for your body, abilities and goals. For more information or to make an appointment, visit the DMU Clinic website or call 515-271-1717.

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Kate Cardamon, M.P.T.

Kate Cardamon is a physical therapist in the Physical Therapy Clinic at Des Moines University. She graduated with an MPT degree from the University of Iowa in 1994. After working two years in acute care, she moved to the outpatient physical therapy realm where she has continued to provide physical therapy services. Kate provides outpatient orthopedic services and has specialized in pelvic physical therapy and treatment of lymphedema. She is a certified lymphedema therapist with LANA certification. She is also certified in Professional Yoga Therapy and is a trigger point dry needling therapist.

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