Healthy Tahoe: Snow removal safety
Lake Tahoe is known for its snowfall with multi-day storms dropping deep, often heavy, snow. And while our region embraces these storms, removing snow is a necessary and strenuous task.
Shoveling snow requires significant exertion and should be approached like an exercise. Don’t eat a big meal or drink alcohol before or soon after shoveling. Dress in layers and cover your mouth and nose to limit the cold air you inhale. Warm up and stretch out the muscles of the back, arms, shoulders, and legs before heading outside.
Once you start shoveling, pace yourself and take frequent breaks. Use the right shovel for the job, one that isn’t too heavy or long for you.
To prevent straining, try to push the snow instead of lifting. Or if lifting, lift from the center and keep your body upright so you don’t bend over at the waist. Take small shovel loads of snow, rather than lifting heavy snow, and avoid twisting to throw snow over your shoulder, which puts pressure on your back.
The combination of shoveling and cold weather can also be hard on your heart, especially if you already have risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol. Prevent dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids, and if you experience chest tightness or pressure, shortness of breath, or other signs of a heart attack, stop immediately and seek emergency care or call 911.
Using a snowblower to remove snow may help with the heavy lifting, but it comes with its own set of risks. Each year, about 5,700 people in the United States go to the emergency department for treatment of snowblower-related injuries such as broken bones, soft tissue/skin cuts, bruises, and sprains; 10 percent of which involve amputation of the hand or fingers.
Before snowblowing, familiarize yourself with your machine. Read the instruction manual and look for specific safety hazards or unfamiliar features.
Fuel your snowblower outside—rather than in a garage, shed, or enclosed area — and never add fuel when the engine is running or hot. Do not operate the machine in an enclosed area.
Never stick your hands in the snowblower. If snow or debris jams the snowblower, stop the engine and wait for at least 5 seconds before using a solid object/tool to clear wet snow or debris from the chute or blades. Snowblower motors and blades can recoil after the snowblower has been turned off. Do not disable any safety mechanisms.
If you’re using an electric snow blower, watch out for the power cord at all times. If the cord is caught in the machine and severed, or comes in contact with the engine and burns, you could receive a shock or become electrocuted.
Watch out for a hot engine — it can burn unprotected skin. Never leave the snowblower unattended when it’s running and keep children 15 years of age and younger away when snowblowing.
With snow removal, it’s important to pay attention to the task at hand and not let your thoughts wander. Give yourself plenty of time and don’t skip any safety steps.
Targhee Oeveraas, MD, MS, FACEP, is the Medical Director of the Barton Emergency Department. Barton’s Level III Trauma Center provides medical services for trauma care and the immediate availability of emergency medicine physicians, surgeons, nurses, lab and x-ray technicians, and life support equipment 24-hours a day. Learn more at BartonHealth.org.
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