With a weary sigh, locals across South Jersey will likely have to pick up one of the most necessary yet resented of all implements — the snow shovel.
But with studies showing that snow shoveling leads to an average of 11,500 related injuries a year nationwide, along with nearly 100 deaths, what can people do to make sure they shovel safely?
“Just today, a patient in very, very good shape said, ‘I’ll be back soon. I’m shoveling snow tomorrow,’” said Natacha Falcon, of Linwood, a non-operative spinal physician at the Rothman Institute in Egg Harbor Township and Manahawkin.
According to the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which documented 17 years’ worth of shoveling injuries from 1990 to 2006, 55 percent of all problems were soft tissue injuries, with lacerations making up another 16 percent and fractures 7 percent.
Not surprisingly, the lower back was the most frequently injured part of the body, making up 34 percent of injuries, with injuries to the arms and hands coming in second at 16 percent and head injuries close behind at 15 percent.
What causes these injuries? Besides slips and falls (20 percent of injuries) and just plain being struck by a snow shovel (15 percent), “acute musculoskeletal exertion” caused more than half of all problems at 54 percent.
And while cardiac-related injuries made up only 7 percent of the total number of cases, they made up more than half of all hospitalizations and every single one of the 1,647 fatalities associated with shoveling snow. People 55 and older were more than four times as likely as younger people to suffer heart problems while shoveling snow, and of those, men were also twice as likely as women.
For Falcon, many of the snow-related injuries she sees involve muscle pain or lower spine disc degeneration that flares up during the act of bending and twisting while shoveling. Quick, sudden movements of shoveling also affect any undelying osteoperosis problems, especially in women.
“One (problem) is the weight of the shovel, which is heavy enough without the weight of the snow,” Falcon said. Also, “instead of pushing snow off to the side, they’re throwing it over their heads.”
Fatigue also becomes an issue, so Falcon suggests taking frequent rest breaks if time allows — though, she added, having the time to do that before going to work might only be doable “in a perfect world” for many people.
Much of the problem, said Roberta Jensen, manager of Ace Hardware in Northfield, is that people often misuse their shovels.
“Ninety percent of the ones that crack or break are because they’re trying to lift too much with them,” Jensen said. “And some of the plastic ones are actually ‘pushers,’ not ‘lifters.’”
When shovelers try to lift heavy snow with the more rectangular-shaped shovels — many clearly marked as a “pusher” — “a lot of times they crack right down the middle,” she said.
A lot of this is probably due to another trend: shovels as last-minute purchases.
“Most of them, when there’s a chance or a call for snow, they come in and buy one,” Jensen said. “Very few come in at the beginning of winter to prepare themselves. And a lot of them actually wait until snow is actually falling.”
Many of the shovels are more ergonomically designed, with a bend near the bottom of the shovel instead of a straight line. One kind available online features a shovel attached to a large wheel that makes it look like a cross between a shovel and an old-timey bicycle.
Rosa Nieves, a nurse from Egg Harbor Township, said that she’s seen many of the common shoveling-related injuries, which is why she makes sure to shovel properly.
“I’ve had mine for a while,” Nieves said. “I bought it just to be prepared. We were caught off guard one time, so I prepared for the next storm. And then we had no snow. It figures.”
Beverly Nelson, a 73-year-old from West Atlantic City, Egg Harbor Township, was out there shoveling the seven inches that fell Jan. 29 just like any other storm — and if doable, she’ll be back out there again Thursday.
“First of all, I don’t shovel heavy snow,” Nelson said. “What I do is light snow, and I take my time. You don’t want to exert yourself.”
If there’s too much, however, “I leave it alone and I tell my son. But (Jan. 29), the snow was so light. I knew I could handle it. My children get after me for this, but I’m a doer. One of those old, strong black women.”
Nelson has had her shovel for five years, she said, having gotten used to the importance of a good shovel growing up in North Jersey.
“I’m born and raised in cold weather,” she said. “I like to see it snow. I love the first snow. I always have. It cleanses the air, it really does.”
But soon, this winter will end — it will happen, trust us — and the shovels will go back into storage.
At Ace, “shovels get stored in the back for the following winter, just like all snow products,” Jensen said. “It’s not like they expire.”
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