Depending on where you live, the first few snowflakes may have started to fall early in November. Many people look forward to the first snow that often drapes the trees so elegantly. However, after weeks or months of snow, heavy snow, blowing snow, snow blizzards, snowdrifts…your eager attitude may have changed to—Enough snow already!
Did you know in some parts of the US the average snowfall approaches 10 feet? That is a lot of snow to shovel. It is not surprising to learn that many people suffer from muscle fatigue, low back strain, vertebral disc damage, and even spinal fractures during the winter season. Some of these injuries result from excessive stress to spinal structures by slip and fall accidents.
Snow shoveling can be compared to weight lifting, and in some cases, the aerobic aspect of this activity is similar to a workout on a treadmill! To help your body function on demand, consider the following tips:
- Be heart smart! Don’t eat or smoke before shoveling snow. Avoid caffeinated beverages. These are stimulants and may increase heart rate and cause blood vessels to constrict.
- If you experience pain of any kind, stop immediately and seek assistance.
- 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.
- If the ground is icy or slick, spread sand or salt over the area to help create foot traction. Be aware that some areas may be uneven and could cause you to slip, trip, or fall.
Dress for Success!
- Consider the weather when choosing outerwear. Dress in layers. Wear clothing that is easy to move in.
Wear a hat—a great deal of body heat is lost through the head.
- If it’s icy cold, consider breathing through a scarf, but don’t let it obstruct your view.
- Proper boots are essential for keeping feet warm and dry while appropriate soles provide traction. Good boots can help you maintain your balance!
- Choose gloves that will keep your hands warm, dry, and blister free—consider thicker gloves, which allow for a good grip on the shovel’s handle.
Select a Shovel that’s Right for You
Shovels are made from different materials and come in many shapes and sizes.
- Choose a shovel that is ergonomically correct—a shovel with a curved handle. Many hardware stores and home centers stock ergonomically designed snow shovels. These shovels help you to keep your back straighter reducing spinal stress.
- Consider a shovel with a plastic blade instead of metal—plastic is lightweight—isn’t the snow heavy enough?
Sometimes a smaller blade is better. You will not be able to shovel as much snow per shovel load, but the load will weigh less, which puts less strain on the spine.
- Get a shovel made to push snow. It is far easier to push snow than to lift it. There are shovels made expressly for pushing snow. See what is available at your hardware or home center store.
- Once you have your shovel, you might want to consider spraying a bit of silicon lubricant on the blade. This can help keep the snow from sticking to the shovel. The snow will slide off the shovel blade.
Technique. Technique. Technique.
- Warm muscles work better. So take some time to stretch to prepare your body for activity.
- Just like with a golf club, hand placement on the shovel handle is very important! Don’t put your hands (grip) close to one another. Create some distance between the hands. This will give you more leverage and make it easier to lift snow.
Think about good posture and maintaining the natural curve of your spine.
- Address your task directly. Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart to maintain balance. Try to keep the shovel close to your body. Bend at the knees—not the waist or back. Tighten your stomach muscles as you lift the snow. Lift with your legs—not your back. Do not twist your body. Dump the snow in front of you. If you need to move the snow to the side, move your feet—do not twist!
- According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, “If you must lift the snow, lift it properly. Squat with your legs apart, knees bent and back straight. Lift with your legs. Do not bend at the waist. Scoop small amounts of snow into the shovel and walk to where you want to dump it. Holding a shovelful of snow with your arms outstretched puts too much weight on your spine. Never remove deep snow all at once; do it piecemeal. Shovel an inch or two; then take another inch off. Rest and repeat if necessary.”
- Don’t throw snow over your shoulder! Go forward with the snow.
- Fresh snow is lighter in weight—so clear snow as soon as it has fallen. Snow becomes dense as it compacts on the ground. Wet snow is very heavy. One shovelful can weigh 20 pounds or more!
- Pace yourself. Take frequent breaks to stretch your back and extremities.
A snowblower is a terrific piece of machinery, but if it’s not used correctly, you can strain or injure your back. Snowblowers are designed to remove snow at a particular rate of speed. Pushing or forcing the equipment to go faster is defeating its purpose—to do the work for you!
Not everyone is able to shovel snow or operate a snowblower. Consider the disabled and some in the senior population. Fortunately, many communities across the US have organized volunteers to help people who need assistance during the winter season.
Cold weather brings a nice change to the air, but can also bring a whole set of challenges of its own. A few things to think about as winter approaches:
Cold weather can cause problems in your car that may not be visible until it’s too late and your car won’t run. Low temperatures can slowly cause problems in everything from tires to fuel lines and ultimately lead to a dead battery or engine. Most problems in cars during cold weather take time to happen, so proper maintenance is the best prevention.
- Dead Battery – A car battery becomes weakened in cold weather because it’s powering more components than during other seasons. Additional headlight time and running the heater, which takes more power than an air conditioning.
- Frozen Fuel Line – Fuel lines run the risk of freezing in the winter because condensation can form on the inside of your gas tank if it gets low on fuel. Therefore, when temperatures drop, the condensation freezes and prevents fuel from reaching the engine.
- Broken Wipers – Freezing temperatures cause windshield wipers to freeze to the windshield or become cracked, making it dangerous to drive in snowy conditions since snow can accumulate and obstruct the driver’s view.
- Tire Pressure – Cold weather can cause tires to lose pressure, which can cause them to become bald and make driving on icy or snow roads more difficult.
- Alternator Belt – Alternator belts can become cracked in cold temperatures, making it harder for the belt to bring power from the gas engine to the electrical battery which can prevent your car from starting.
Cold weather problems at home are not only a nuisance, but can be costly. Preventive maintenance is key to keeping costs (and headaches!) down.
- Broken Furnace – Don’t wait till time to use it to check your furnace or heater. Turn it on early to make sure it’s working properly before the cold weather sets in. You can prolong the life of your furnace by changing the filter monthly, and using the thicker filters.
- Cracked Pipes – Some tips to make sure your pipes don’t crack: Make sure the pipes are in a heated and well insulated area. Also, run the faucet ever so often to keep the water moving. But remember, this only keeps the pipes from freezing, it won’t thaw them. Make preparations early.
Avoid Frostbite & Hypothermia
When exposed to cold temperatures, your body will lose heat faster than it can be produced. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Warnings signs of hypothermia are shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. Seek medical attention quickly. Hypothermia is particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and won’t do anything about it.
Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures. At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin —frostbite may be beginning. A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.
If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care. If there is frostbite, no sign of hypothermia, and immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:
- Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes because this increases the damage.
- Immerse the affected area in warm water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body). Or, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
Be sure the outer layer of your clothing is tightly woven, preferably wind resistant, to reduce body-heat loss caused by wind. Wool, silk, or polypropylene inner layers of clothing will hold more body heat than cotton.
Stay dry — wet clothing chills the body rapidly. Excess perspiration will increase heat loss, so remove extra layers of clothing whenever you feel too warm. Also, avoid getting gasoline or alcohol on your skin while de-icing and fueling your car or using a snow blower. These materials in contact with the skin greatly increase heat loss from the body.
Do not ignore shivering. It’s an important first sign that the body is losing heat. Persistent shivering is a signal to return indoors.
Understand Wind Chill
The Wind Chill Index is the temperature your body feels when the air temperature is combined with the wind speed. When temperatures fall below freezing frostbite can occur in a matter of minutes. As the speed of the wind increases, it can carry heat away from your body much more quickly, causing skin temperature to drop. When there are high winds, serious weather-related health problems are more likely, even when temperatures are only cool.
Check on Others
When winter weather puts us in the deep freeze make certain that you take time to check on family, friends and neighbors who are especially at risk from cold weather hazards: young children, older adults and the chronically ill. Also if you have pets, bring them inside so they can stay warm too.
Autumn is invariably a prelude to falling winter temperatures, regardless of where you live. It might rain or snow or, as David Letterman says, “Fall is my favorite season in Los Angeles, watching the birds change color and fall from the trees.” Did you know there is only one state in the United States where the temperatures are never below zero? Give up? It’s Hawaii. But it gets close to zero at Mauna Kea.
Here are ten tips to help you prepare your home for winter:
1) Furnace Inspection
- Call an HVAC professional to inspect your furnace and clean ducts.
- Stock up on furnace filters and change them monthly.
- Consider switching out your thermostat for a programmable thermostat.
- If your home is heated by a hot-water radiator, bleed the valves by opening them slightly and when water appears, close them.
- Remove all flammable material from the area surrounding your furnace.
2) Get the Fireplace Ready
- Cap or screen the top of the chimney to keep out rodents and birds.
- If the chimney hasn’t been cleaned for a while, call a chimney sweep to remove soot and creosote.
- Buy firewood or chop wood. Store it in a dry place away from the exterior of your home.
- Inspect the fireplace damper for proper opening and closing.
- Check the mortar between bricks and tuckpoint, if necessary.
3) Check the Exterior, Doors and Windows
- Inspect exterior for crevice cracks and exposed entry points around pipes; seal them.
- Use weatherstripping around doors to prevent cold air from entering the home and caulk windows.
- Replace cracked glass in windows and, if you end up replacing the entire window, prime and paint exposed wood.
- If your home has a basement, consider protecting its window wells by covering them with plastic shields.
- Switch out summer screens with glass replacements from storage. If you have storm windows, install them.
4) Inspect Roof, Gutters & Downspouts
- If your weather temperature will fall below 32 degrees in the winter, adding extra insulation to the attic will prevent warm air from creeping to your roof and causing ice dams.
- Check flashing to ensure water cannot enter the home.
- Replace worn roof shingles or tiles.
- Clean out the gutters and use a hose to spray water down the downspouts to clear away debris.
- Consider installing leaf guards on the gutters or extensions on the downspouts to direct water away from the home.
5) Service Weather-Specific Equipment
- Drain gas from lawnmowers.
- Service or tune-up snow blowers.
- Replace worn rakes and snow shovels.
- Clean, dry and store summer gardening equipment.
- Sharpen ice choppers and buy bags of ice-melt / sand.
6) Check Foundations
- Rake away all debris and edible vegetation from the foundation.
- Seal up entry points to keep small animals from crawling under the house.
- Tuckpoint or seal foundation cracks. Mice can slip through space as thin as a dime.
- Inspect sill plates for dry rot or pest infestation.
- Secure crawlspace entrances.
7) Install Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors
- Some cities require a smoke detector in every room.
- Buy extra smoke detector batteries and change them when daylight savings ends.
- Install a carbon monoxide detector near your furnace and / or water heater.
- Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to make sure they work.
- Buy a fire extinguisher or replace an extinguisher older than 10 years.
8) Prevent Plumbing Freezes
- Locate your water main in the event you need to shut it off in an emergency.
- Drain all garden hoses.
- Insulate exposed plumbing pipes.
- Drain air conditioner pipes and, if your AC has a water shut-off valve, turn it off.
- If you go on vacation, leave the heat on, set to at least 55 degrees.
9) Prepare Landscaping & Outdoor Surfaces
- Trim trees if branches hang too close to the house or electrical wires.
- Ask a gardener when your trees should be pruned to prevent winter injury.
- Plant spring flower bulbs and lift bulbs that cannot winter over such as dahlias in areas where the ground freezes.
- Seal driveways, brick patios and wood decks.
- Don’t automatically remove dead vegetation from gardens as some provide attractive scenery in an otherwise dreary, snow-drenched yard.
- Move sensitive potted plants indoors or to a sheltered area.
10) Prepare an Emergency Kit
- Buy indoor candles and matches / lighter for use during a power shortage.
- Find the phone numbers for your utility companies and tape them near your phone or inside the phone book.
- Buy a battery back-up to protect your computer and sensitive electronic equipment.
- Store extra bottled water and non-perishable food supplies (including pet food, if you have a pet), blankets and a first-aid kit in a dry and easy-to-access location.
- Prepare an evacuation plan in the event of an emergency.