OSH Answers Fact Sheets
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Why is snow shovelling an occupational hazard?
As Canadians, we've been digging with that same snow shovel just as we do every year. But have we ever really given this chore much thought? Whether you're shovelling at work or at home, there are some things you should consider.
Timing and attitude
Often the need for shovelling snow arises unexpectedly and interferes with what we had originally planned to do. Consequently we face this unwanted chore unprepared and, more important, in a hurry to get it over with as fast as possible. If we are not careful, we could experience cold exposure, fatigue, muscular strains and more serious injury, particularly to the lower back. On the other hand, it is more practical to shovel early and often. Fresh dry snow is lighter and therefore more manageable than wet, heavily packed or partly melted snow.
What should you know before you start shovelling?
First of all, you should keep in mind that, while shovelling snow may be an excellent workout for the physically fit, it involves strenuous effort.
Load a shovel (over 1 kg) with 5 kg of snow (just about the average) every 5 seconds, and you move a load of over 70 kg in one minute. Repeat for 15 minutes and you will have shovelled 1,000 kg of snow. Such effort is obviously not for everyone.
It is hard on the heart and back for those who are not used to it or not in good physical shape. If you are older, overweight, or have a history of back or heart problems, or simply feel that it is too much for you, avoid this job by delegating it to someone else. Another option would be getting a snow blower.
As with any exercise, talk to your doctor. If you are physically fit, do some warm-ups before you start shovelling. Flexing and stretching exercises will loosen up the muscles and prepare them for the job ahead.
Next, check your clothing. Are you dressed appropriately? Wear several layers of warm lightweight clothing that is hinder free and comfortable to move in. The inner layer should be fishnet underwear or thermal underwear that allows perspiration to escape from the skin surface. Make sure your head, (especially your ears), feet and hands are well covered. However, do not let your hat or scarf block your vision - you have to see what you are shovelling. Boots should be water-resistant and high-cut, and should 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 -40°C, or below -25° to -30°C when it is windy.
For more information about working in the cold, you can visit the "Cold Environments" publications elsewhere in OSH Answers - General Information, Health Effects and First Aid, and Working in the Cold.
Any shovel will do, right?
What about that shovel? Is it a snow shovel? Any other kind of shovel will make the job much harder.
A snow shovel should be light-weight, about 1.5 kg or a little over 3 lbs, and the blade shouldn't be too large. Otherwise your load will be too heavy, putting too much stress on your heart and back. The handle should be long enough so that you don't have to stoop to shovel. The grip should be made of plastic or wood--metal gets too cold.
How should you shovel?
You may want to get the job over with as fast as you can, but it is better to keep mobile and work at a steady pace. Shovelling is going to make you sweat and, if you stop, you could get a chill.
Push the snow rather than lift it. If you must throw it, take only as much snow as you can easily lift and turn your feet to the direction you're throwing - don't twist at the waist. Throwing the snow over your shoulder or to the side is a no-no! And remember, the wetter the snow, the heavier it is.
You might want to consider using a snow scoop which allows you to move snow with less effort, by pushing instead of lifting. The scoop rides up over the snow to allow you to move the snow without ever having to lift it.
Pace yourself. Shovelling snow is strenuous activity comparable to weightlifting while walking on uneven and unstable ground and wearing heavy-duty clothing. Take frequent breaks and drink some warm non-alcoholic fluids.
Where can you get more information about shovelling?
For more information about shovelling in general including what to consider when selecting a shovel, and the rate (how fast) you should shovel, please see the OSH Answers document Shovelling.
Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, CCOHS does not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current. CCOHS is not liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the information.