Snow shovelling

Christmas and New Year of 2008-2009 we found ourselves doing a lot of shovelling after unusually heavy snowfall here in Vancouver. We saw several people in the clinic who had hurt themselves in the process in ways that were largely avoidable, so for those of us who only occasionally have to shovel, and anticipating that it could be necessary any day now, I thought some advice on safely removing snow would be worthwhile. 

Choose a shovel that’s right for you:  A shovel’s handle is the appropriate length when you can slightly bend your knees and hold the shovel comfortably in your hands at the start of the shovel stroke. A bent-handled shovel can reduce stain by allowing a more upright stance compared to a traditional straight-handled shovel but this is more a personal preference matter. A shovel blade that is made of plastic will be lighter than a metal one, putting less strain on your spine. A smaller blade may be better than a larger one because it avoids temptation to pick up a pile of snow that is too heavy for your body to carry. Use a T or D shaped handle to help reduce shovel twist.   

 Use proper technique: shutterstock_25738561

By watching the technique adopted by professional shovellers, researchers in ergonomics have been able to show that the key is move a light load at the right rate. Around 5 to 7 kg with each stroke taking 4 to 5 seconds. That’s around 12 to 15 strokes a minute.    

  • Grip the shovel with your hands at least 12 inches apart, and keep one hand close to the base of the shovel. Positioning your hands further apart will help increase your leverage.
  • Squat with your legs hip-width apart, knees bent and back straight. Put the weight to your front foot and use the leg to drive the shovel into the snow. Transfer the weight to the back leg and keep the shovel close to the body. Lift with your legs. Do not bend at the waist.
  • Scoop small amounts of snow into the shovel and walk to where you want to dump it. You should not be throwing the snow more than a metre. Holding a shovel of snow with your arms outstretched puts undue strain and compression on your spine.
  • Step in the direction in which you are throwing the snow. This will help prevent twisting of the low back and ‘next-day back fatigue’ experienced by many shovellers.

Remember to start slowly, perhaps even take a walk beforehand to warm up. Shovelling can be a strenuous activity, equivalent to jogging. In addition the cold air is harder on the respiratory system so if it’s really cold, take frequent breaks and do the job in smaller parcels.

Hopefully these suggestions will keep you healthy if and when we have to grab our shovels and get digging!

Sources for this post included the Canadian Physiotherapy Association,|K=229710, the Globe and Mail’s Dec 18 article available here. and of course, personal experience.

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