Be Careful If You're Out Shoveling Snow

by Chris Tognotti

Are you getting snowed in? If so, there's probably a decent chance it's thanks to Winter Storm Jonas. Forecasts gave everyone a little advance notice, but even so, it's made for some harrowing, uncertain conditions, with thousands of commercial flights already canceled, and record levels of snowfall across parts of the northeast. Which means you might be mulling over some anti-snow measures right now. For example: what's the best way to shovel snow?

First of all, it's important to note that it might not be worth it to you to start shoveling right now, certainly not with blizzard warnings still in effect. If weather conditions haven't yet returned to a safe, secure and stable state where you are, it's probably best to just ride things out and not risk getting caught out in the cold. Jonas is projected to head out into the Atlantic on Sunday, so it shouldn't be too much longer now.

But if you're going to grab a shovel and head out into your snow-packed driveway anytime soon, it's worth making sure that you're doing it right. And in this context, "doing it right" means taking care of yourself along the way, because shoveling snow can be a very hazardous experience.

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Here's the basic idea: if you're out shoveling snow, it's hugely important to know your body, and to stay aware of how it's feeling, but that all gets a lot harder the colder you become. Whether you're wading through shin-high snow, or it's just a couple inches, you're almost certainly going to be working in temperatures under 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the freezing temperature for water. And in that kind of cold, you'll be prone to getting numb, meaning you're less likely to notice a nagging injury, or even worse, an internal issue.

That latter concern is probably the biggest one. Even with the many risks of physical injury that shoveling snow comes with ― pulled muscles, thrown backs, aching arm joints, and the like ― one of the biggest threats while you've shoveling is to the health of your heart.

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As the BBC expertly detailed back in 2014, the conditions that are typically in place when you're trying to clear snow ― frigid temperatures, heavy physical strain, and a numbed awareness of your own body ― are ideal for cardiac incidents, and for people who're older or not physically fit, there can be a risk of heart attack. That's what cardiologist Barry Franklin warned the BBC, at any rate. He headed up a team that researched snow removal-related deaths, and he believes that hundreds of lives are lost annually thanks to such cardiac incidents.

I believe we lose hundreds of people each year because of this activity. ... Combine [elevated blood pressure and heart rate from shoveling] with cold air, which causes arteries to constrict and decrease blood supply, you have a perfect storm for a heart attack.

Franklin's suggestion for how to avoid this often-overlooked risk? It's pretty straightforward: if you're old, or you live a sedentary lifestyle and aren't in great shape (smoking and obesity are also major risk factors), don't shovel your own snow.

Sure, it might be a pain, and if you're not very well off financially, an even bigger one ― maybe you don't want to feel as though you're not capable of clearing your own snow away, and that's an impulse that's easy to sympathize with. But if you know full well, or if you even suspect that you're not in good enough shape to be safely shoveling your own snow, do the sensible thing and hire a physically fit professional to take care of it for you. "It's better to be safe than sorry" is a good attitude to have here.