Snow Shoveling Safety

Blade of orange snow shovel hitting into snow bank.

Originally posted 3/21/2018 by Dorothy Lehr, DPT, OCS, Cert. MDT updated 2/3/2022

Major snowstorms have a way of causing major headaches…and major muscle aches!

Snowstorms have already hit many parts of the country this winter, with more on the way. And while there’s beauty in a landscape covered in white, there’s potential for back aches and muscle strain in the chore of removing snow if not done safely and with preparation.

So before powering up that monster snow blower and pushing it along the sidewalks or layering up with hats, scarves and gloves, read on for tips to keep you safe and healthy while out in the bluster.

Beware the Shovel

  • While a shovel with a standard handle may be cheaper to purchase, beware! Shovels with "bent" handles - ergonomic handles - are a better choice for reducing back strain. Choose one with a cushioned grip too.
  • Look for a shovel that also has a sharp bend in the shaft. This type of shovel is made to decrease back strain as you push and stoop to scoop.
  • The weight of the snow makes a difference in snow tool choice. Snow tool? That's right!
    Today's shovels have come a long way from the standard shovel and come in a range of blade features (the scooping or chiseling part) to lessen strain and injury.
    • Light and fluffy? Aluminum is the way to go.
    • Heavy and slushy? Polycarbonate, shatter-resistant gets the job done.
    • Icy and compressed? Galvanized steel chips away with lower impact.

Tame the Technique

Proper shoveling is just as important as the correct shovel.

Keep your back straight.

Bend at your hips and knees.

Avoid twisting your body when dumping snow. Instead, pivot your legs to turn your whole body.

Wear shoes or boots with good tread to avoid slipping on slick areas or black ice. Applying pet-friendly salt, sand or kitty litter gives traction and decreases the risk of slipping.

Snow shoveling can be as physically demanding as a gym workout and should be treated like a day in the gym.

Don’t overexert yourself, especially when the snow is wet and heavy. In deep snow, take a few inches off the top and tackle the job by dividing it into thirds, with one-hour rest breaks.

Prepare and Prevent Injury

Snow shoveling is a cardiovascular and weight-lifting exercise. So just like you need to stretch before working out or exercising to get its great benefits, stretching before and after is important.

If you need to tackle a big snow that will take more than a few minutes, taking a break and stretching in between clearing snow or drifts will help prevent injury.

Lumbar Extension

This stretch helps balance in any forward-bending movement while shoveling. Choose a standing or laying position.

woman demonstrating lumbar extension stretch

Extension 1: Stand and bend back as far as is comfortable and hold for three to five seconds. Do 10-15 repetitions.

woman demonstrating lumbar extension stretch

Extension 2: Lie on your stomach and bend back as far as is comfortable and hold for three to five seconds. Do 10-15 repetitions.

Quadriceps Stretch

While standing, use your right arm to pull your right leg up toward your buttocks. Keep your trunk straight and use opposite arm to hold onto a sturdy object to maintain balance.

woman demonstrating quad stretch

Duration: Hold each stretch for 20 seconds doing five reps on each leg. This will stretch out your quad muscles that you’ll be using to lift while shoveling.

Hip Flexor Stretch

In a half-kneeling position and while maintaining an upright trunk, lunge forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your hip.

woman demonstrating hip flexor stretch

Duration: Hold position for 20 seconds doing five reps on each leg. This stretch will help to stretch the muscles you’ll be using while moving snow and helps to keep your spine in a neutral position.

Beyond Shoveling Safety Tips

Sometimes, there will be a winter storm where a snow shovel isn’t enough.

While a snow blower can certainly help with snow removal, snow blower injuries and accidents do happen. Burn injuries, lacerations, fractures and even amputations are the biggest reasons for ER visits from snow blower injuries.

"The Consumer Products Safety Commission estimates that 3,000 persons are treated in emergency rooms in the United States for snow-blower injuries each year."

Practice these to stay safe while operating a snow blower:

  • Never put your hands down the chute or around the blades of a snow blower. If you need to clear wait 10 seconds after turning off the engine for the blades to stop spinning. Use the handle or a broom, a stick or another tool to clear any clogs.
  • Keep hands and feet clear of all moving parts of a snow blower.
  • Avoid hanging scarves and loose-fitting clothing which could become tangled in the moving parts and pull you into the machine.
  • Direct the discharge chute away from you, other people or areas where any damage can occur. The blower can throw hard objects, such as salt, sticks and ice.

Winter can be brutal, even when you do prepare and follow safe practices.

If you’re feeling nagging aches and pains or you’ve suffered an injury during your winter clean-ups, we’re here for you.

Click the Contact Us button below to request an appointment with a nearby center. Stay safe and keep thinking spring - it's coming!

By: Dorothy Lehr, DPT, OCS, Cert. MDT. Dot is a physical therapist and center manager with NovaCare Rehabilitation in Willingboro, NJ. A treating clinician for 12 years, Dot is a board certified orthopaedic specialist and McKenzie credentialed therapist, specializing in spine treatment.