In some Buffalo-area towns, residents are staring up at six feet of snow after a series of lake effect storms dumped rapidly accumulating flakes on the region. All these remarkable, somewhat scary pictures of the snow piling up prompts the question: How do you even begin to shovel your way out?
A driving ban has put a damper on larger snow-removal efforts, including at Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the Buffalo Bills play. The team offered $10 an hour and free tickets to anyone who showed up to help them try to shovel out for Sunday afternoon’s game before the NFL announced that the game would be relocated and rescheduled.
There is also increasing concern about roofs, which are starting to collapse across the region — “including cave-ins that prompted the evacuation of 15 to 20 people Thursday from a suburban Buffalo mobile home park,” the Associated Press reported.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has asked for federal help in digging Western New York out from the severe storm. “It is critical that we get federal resources on the ground as soon as possible,” he said in a statement Thursday, “so that Erie County and the other impacted Western New York counties can dig out from the snow and recover and rebuild as quickly as possible.”
In some towns, local officials are working more or less around the clock to try and keep roads clear. But the work of clearing out driveways and walkways is a job that’s mostly left to the residents. With the snow accumulation taller than some people, that can be a daunting task.
Although snow-shoveling can be great exercise if done properly, it’s also dangerous. Ten people have died in the storm, most of them “caused by cardiac issues when victims attempted shovel snow or push vehicles,” the Buffalo News reported.
One of most recent victims, according to the paper: “A 60-year-old man in Cheektowaga who was trying to get his snowblower out of a shed when he suffered a heart attack. The man had a history of heart problems, county Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said.”
On Thursday, officials warned older residents and those with heart problems to “stay at home and hire a kid” to do their shoveling for them.
Data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission suggest that more than 26,000 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms last year for injuries connected to the use of manual snow-removal tools, like shovels and ice scrapers. That number grows to more than 33,000 when you factor in snowblowers.
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic surgeons, snow removal is particularly dangerous for people who don’t exercise regularly. Some of the more common injuries include sprains, strains in the back and shoulders, cuts, and even finger amputations.
“One of the big challenges we see is people overdo it a bit,” Torrey Laack, an expert in emergency medicine at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, said in an interview. “It’s a fair amount of exertion. Sometimes people do this even though their heart isn’t healthy enough to do this sort of exertion.”
Laack recommended that potential shovelers, even those who are fit enough to handle the task, follow local travel and safety recommendations. If officials urge people to stay indoors, stay indoors, Laack said.
Normally, officials recommend that residents try to keep up with the snow by shoveling in stages as the snow falls; but the intense, quick precipitation from Buffalo’s lake effect storms poses some unique challenges. “With huge snowstorms like this, many people may not be able to keep up,” Laack said, adding that sometimes the best solution is just to “wait it out.”
Once out, Laack said, shovelers should drink plenty of fluids, and “stop if you feel fatigue, shortness of breath.”
Although shoveling snow requires more intense physical exertion than using a snowblower does, Laack warned that the machines come with their own risks, including the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning when residents warm up snowblowers in a closed garage.
But that’s not the most common snowblower injury Laack sees during and after winter storms: “The big one, and this is the one we see every year, is people have to be reminded not to use their hands to clear chutes and blades.”
In wet, heavy, snow, snowblowers can become clogged. “It’s amazing, and I know I have to fight myself many times every year, there’s a temptation to put my hand in there” to clear it out,” he added.
For its part, AAOS recommends treating the task of digging out like a workout: Do a light, 10-minute warm up before shoveling, take breaks and wear “light, layered, water-repellent clothing,” along with a hat and gloves. And, take breaks.
Under the right conditions, Laack added, shoveling can be healthy. “Snow is something that affects a lot of us in the United States,” he said. “Most people do just fine with it….under the right conditions.”
[This post has been updated.]