Snow-shovel death and how to avoid it.

How to protect your pockets.
Feb. 1 2011 7:13 PM

Snow Shovels of Death

How to remove snow from your front walk without killing yourself.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

"Would it kill you to shovel the front walk?" A monster snowstorm raging from New Mexico to Maine raises this question afresh. Typically it's posed by a woman standing with hands on hips and assuming a Thurberesque mien as she gazes down on a man exercising his thumb on the remote but otherwise in repose. The correct answer: "It might."

Snow-shovel design may not rank up there with the Three Gorges Dam as an engineering challenge, but it kills more than 10 times as many people each year. My Slate colleague Juliet Lapidos has observed that the 1,200 annual heart-failure deaths attributed to blizzards represent only about 0.3 percent of all annual deaths from heart disease. But that's a lot more people than die from watching a football game (though that poses health risks too). You can say all these shovelers should exercise more, and that's certainly true. But such advice is of little help to a sedentary soul whose doorstep is suddenly buried in a four-foot drift.

The science of shoveling was invented by the Progressive Era efficiency expert (and father of Taylorism) Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor observed laborers shoveling varying weights and concluded that the shovel load with which "a first class man would do his biggest day's work" was about 21 pounds. That's remarkably close to the current recommendation from Canada's Center for Occupational Health and Safety (keep per-shovel snow loads below 24 pounds). At the Bethlehem Steel works in Pennsylvania, Taylor gave out shovels specifically designed to hold 21 pounds—small ones for shoveling iron ore, big ones for shoveling ash—and made "thousands of stop-watch observations" to calculate the most efficient shoveling method.  

Taylor's purpose was not to preserve workers' health but to maximize output; by following his recommendations, Bethlehem was able to increase the daily weight shoveled by each laborer from 16 to 59 tons. But because physical endurance was a necessary component to maximizing output, Taylor's shoveling method also reduced wear and tear on the human body. "[T]his is not nigger driving," Taylor said (that's how Progressives talked in 1911); "this is kindness; this is teaching; this is doing what I would like mighty well to have done to me if I were a boy trying to learn how to do something." He recommended that workers

press the forearm hard against the upper part of the right leg, just below the thigh … take the end of the shovel in your right hand and when you push the shovel into the pile, instead of using the muscular effort of your arms, which is tiresome, throw the weight on the body of the shovel … [T]hat pushes your shovel in the pile with hardly any exertion and without tiring the arms in the least.

Reading Taylor's recommendations, one is struck by two significant changes in American life. One is that 100 years later African-Americans are considered human beings whose physical well-being concerns society (at least in theory) as much as that of Caucasians. The other change is that, even taking into account that Taylor's subjects were all experienced manual laborers, people must have had much stronger backs back then.

Today, ergonomists worry less about manual laborers' arms than about their backs, because the lower back (specifically the lumbosacral junction) is now understood to be the weakest link in the "body segment chain." The same goes for anyone in the general population who shovels snow. Various technological innovations have been attempted to protect the back and reduce muscle strain generally, thereby lowering the risk of heart failure. A shovel with a longer shaft makes the initial part of the job easier, but it makes the part where you actually lift the snow harder. Many stores sell a snow shovel with a bent shaft, which is widely recognized as the optimal ergonomic design. This type of shovel has the opposite problem. It makes the initial part of the job harder (you have to stoop, especially if you're tall or fat), but makes the part where you actually lift the snow easier. One Canadian study compared the standard snow shovel with the ergonomic snow shovel and concluded that each type strained different bicep muscles and that the ergonomic shovel wasn't significantly better for your back than the straight model. "It might be appropriate to use both types," it concluded.

A 1993 study not of snow shovels but of shovels generally found a "significant reduction" in muscle stress when a different type of ergonomic design was used. With this shovel, a second, short shaft was added perpendicular to the main shaft about two-thirds of the way toward the scoop. I've never actually seen a snow shovel of this type in a hardware store, but they do exist. Probably there's something wrong with them, too; we just haven't yet figured out what it is.

Are you one of those compulsive people who starts shoveling snow before the snowstorm is over? Please don't. Since it's usually colder during the snowstorm than afterward, your shoveling will burn up extra energy and put additional strain on your heart. Compensate for the cold by bundling up more and you'll risk getting too hot, which is also dangerous.

One of the most distressing pieces of health-conscious advice is that you're not supposed to drink coffee before you head outside to shovel the walk. That makes perfect sense; coffee increases your heart rate. But how the hell do you face a job like this without first downing a cup of coffee or three? Hot cocoa is bad, too, for some reason.

The safest tool to clear your walk is a snowblower, which, "when used correctly," puts less strain on your back. But these are nasty, noisy machines that will make your neighbors hate you, and you probably won't think to get one until you're already snowed in.

Here, then, is what I recommend. Wait till someone younger or poorer than you knocks on your door and offers to shovel your walk for $20 or $30. This person probably needs the money—nobody would volunteer for such dreadful work if he didn't—and assuming he's no older than 40 and doesn't smoke, his constitution can probably handle the strain. Delegate. The economy will benefit and your cardiologist will thank you.

Correction, Feb. 2, 2011: An earlier version of this column stated, erroneously, that the big shovels were for iron ore and the small ones were for ash (which of course makes no sense).

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Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.