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Snow shovel injuries: Here's what the research says about that


The seasonal ritual of snow-shoveling carries with it broader and more significant public health risks than that of the proverbial aching muscles. Though many serious injuries, hospitalizations, and deaths result every year from shoveling in the United States, scarce attention is paid to proper rules of safety.

A 2009 study published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, “Snow Shovel-Related Injuries and Medical Emergencies Treated in U.S. EDs, 1990 to 2006,” surveyed emergency departments in 6,100 hospitals over a 17-year period to establish the kinds of incidents and the demographics of those involved. An estimated 195,100 people were treated in emergency departments over the study period, constituting an average annual figure of 11,500 individuals treated for snow shovel-related emergencies.

The study’s findings include:

  • Musculoskeletal exertion was involved in 54% of the cases; slips and falls represented 20%; and a snow shovel striking a person caused 15% of incidents.
  • Sprains, strains, contusions, and abrasions — “soft-tissue injuries” — were diagnosed in 55% of the admissions; lower back injuries constituted 34.3%.
  • Cardiac-related incidents comprised 6.7% of cases; they caused half of all hospitalizations and all 1,647 deaths.
  • Two-thirds of the cases involved males, with the median age being 39; persons over age 55 comprised 21.8%; and children accounted for 15.3% of cases.
  • Children were almost 15 times more likely of being injured by being struck by a snow shovel than adults were.
  • For the 125,900 cases in which the location was documented, 95.6% happened around the home.

The researchers note that the study underestimates the actual number of injuries in the U.S. because the survey only accounts for injuries registered in emergency departments. The survey data also lacked details that might prove useful in public policy considerations, “such as the type of snow shovel used, the length of time that the patient was shoveling, and the safety precautions taken, if any.”

A 2012 study published in the journal Clinical Research in Cardiology found that among a group of patients who suffered acute coronary syndrome during the winter season, about 7% of these incidents occurred following show shoveling. The researchers conclude that a “family history of premature cardiovascular disease and male gender were found to have strong, independent associations with having a snow-shoveling-related ACS.”

Tags: exercise, safety

Citation: Watson, Daniel; Shields, Brenda; Smith, Gary. "Snow shovel–related injuries and medical emergencies treated in US EDs, 1990 to 2006," American Journal of Emergency Medicine, January 2011, Vol. 29, No. 1, 11-17. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2009.07.003.