Blog /

The Link Between Shoveling Snow and Workplace Back Injuries

Man shoveling snow

For many of us living in the northern United States and Canada, snow is an unavoidable reality of winter. With the amount of time spent shoveling the driveway and scraping ice off the car, few people want to give any more thought to snow than they have to.

But that means it’s especially important to have regular conversations about it at work. And here’s why.

A 17-year study on the health effects of snow shoveling discovered that from 1990 to 2006 approximately 195,000 people visited the hospital because of injuries caused by clearing snow. Unsurprisingly, 54% of the visits were for musculoskeletal exertion. (Heart attacks and slips, trips and falls were two other major contributors to shoveling-related hospital visits.) And with so much additional effort required of workers’ backs off the job, there’s bound to be an impact on the job.

In fact, research has confirmed what many of us already know: back pain can be caused by regular physical stress. So if you strain your back by lifting too much at home then you’re more likely to hurt your back at work.

This means that if you want to reduce back injuries at work it’s important to improve workers’ back health at home. If you don’t already have a robust off-the-job safety program then consider beginning with the following:

  • providing appropriate motivation
  • building habits
  • improving awareness

You can do the first two by appealing to things workers care about (like giving them skills they can pass on to their kids) and by providing the time and support required to develop new behaviors. But the last one should come in the form of delivering toolbox talks and also addressing specific hazards—which is how we come back to talking about shoveling snow.

By raising the profile of the hazards of snow shoveling and providing practical advice on how to protect backs while clearing the driveway, you can reduce the overall strain on employees backs and reduce the prevalence of back pain in your workforce.

Here are some tips to pass on to workers in a toolbox talks on shoveling.

  • Use the right equipment. A smaller blade may mean you need a few more shovelfuls to clear the driveway but it will also prevent you from lifting more than is safe. A plastic blade will also be lighter than a metal one, reducing the total weight you need to lift. Ergonomic handles will help as well.
  • Warm up your body and your brain. As with any physical activity, you’re less likely to pull a muscle or overly stress your heart if you warm up and stretch first. Also do a quick mental check. If you’re in a rush, frustrated or tired, you’re much more likely to lift too much too quickly, circumvent proper lifting techniques and the other tips on this list.
  • Dress appropriately. Good gloves, warm boots with good traction, a toque, and layered, breathable outerwear will help you maintain a comfortable working temperature. If you’re not warm enough from the start, you’ll soon be rushing to get done as quickly as possible, which can lead to shortcuts and injuries. If you’re too hot fatigue will set in early.
  • Plan ahead. Pay attention to the weather forecast the night before so you can get up early in case you need to shovel before work. Waking up to a major snowfall the morning of your big meeting is sure to create some rushing and frustration that could lead to a fall or a strained back. Also, before you jump right in with shovelling, test your footing to determine how heavy the snow is. Sometimes that first lift is deceiving and there may be ice under the snow. Think about what an injury would mean to your day, your week or possibly the rest of your life.
  • Pace yourself during shoveling activities. Take frequent breaks and drink plenty of water. Snow shoveling is strenuous work, and it is important to re-hydrate your body often. It’s also a good time to re-assess where you’re at mentally (e.g., Is fatigue setting in?, Are you getting frustrated?).
  • Throw snow forward. Tossing snow over your shoulder or twisting your torso to toss snow to the side can compromise your posture.
  • Push when possible. Pushing snow is less taxing than lifting it, so push it when possible. But watch out for bumps and cracks that can catch the edge of the shovel and send you off-balance or painfully introduce your torso to a shovel handle.
  • Stay alert and out of the way. Winter has the shortest days, so a lot of shovelling happens in the dark. When working near a road or street, snowplows or other vehicles may not see you and it could be difficult for you to gauge where your driveway ends and the shoulder of the road begins. Keep the earbuds in the house and face the road so you can hear and see what might be coming your way.
  • Check your complacency. Especially as you get older, there will come a time when you need to change what you do. Just because you used to be able to handle a driveway full of snow doesn’t mean you can this year. Go easy at first and if you’re finding it more difficult ask yourself if the risk of injury is worth it or whether you should get some help.
  • Snowblowers require attention. Snowblowers can drastically reduce the amount of snow you need to move on your own, but they’re also heavy machinery and you can strain your back if you move or lift it incorrectly. And, of course, the moving blades create an additional hazard to be aware of.

Use these tips as a handout for your toolbox talk and to learn more about dealing with back injuries at work and at home, download this free guide on addressing back pain. It offers insight into motivating employees, proper lifting technique and the importance of habits in improving back safety.