Snowblower Safety Tips Minnesotans Need to Know
Awareness of injury risks is the first step to practicing snowblower safety this winter.
Minnesota winters mean snow. And the prospect of snowy days prompts practical Minnesotans to keep our snowblowers at the ready as the weather turns colder. However, while we may be prepared for winter, we are less adept at practicing snowblower safety and preventing equipment injuries. The hand surgeons at Summit Orthopedics would like to change that.
Snowblower safety is linked to risk awareness
“Every winter, we see too many hand injuries,” says hand specialist and surgeon Dr. Edward Su. “Most happen when people try to clear a jammed snowblower. Many people aren’t aware of the risks, even though this isn’t a new problem. We have hand specialists at Summit who remember the three-day Halloween blizzard in 1991. They treated 150 snowblower injuries that weekend.”
Snowblower injuries can be life changing
The most common injuries are laceration, amputation, or crushing of the distal phalanx. “The distal phalanx is the tip of the finger, including the nail and the sensitive fingertip pad that we rely on for touch and manipulation,” explains hand specialist and surgeon Dr. Robert Anderson. “These injuries can be devastating in terms of both medical costs and social and economic consequences. It’s never easy to reattach or replant an amputated finger. In addition, the crushing force of the blade can cause irreparable harm to the neurovascular structures in the fingers.”
The CDC reports that the average snowblower injury sufferer is a man in his mid-40s. Ninety percent of these injuries involve the dominant hand. Because the middle finger is the longest, it is the most frequently injured finger, but snowblower accidents often involve multiple damaged fingers. However, all of these injuries are preventable if you understand the risks and know how to safely clear clogged snow from your equipment.
Jammed snowblowers present the greatest injury risk
“The engine doesn’t have to be running for the blades to injure you,” explains Dr. Anderson. “When the machine is clogged with snow and ice, the blade stops like a spring. Even after the snowblower is shut off, the blade may still be under some torque. That potential energy continues to push against the clog until the snow is cleared out. As soon as the clog gives, the blade energy is released and whirls into motion. If you used your hand to clear the snow, it’s going to be in the path of the moving blade.”
“The biggest and most understandable misconception is that the danger zone is around the auger at the intake end of the snowblower,” continues Dr. Anderson. “In fact, the impeller blade in the exit chute rotates 10 times faster than the auger. Snowblowers work in two stages. The first stage involves the auger in the lower part of the snowblower, pushing snow up into the chute. The second stage occurs as the impeller blade in the chute throws the snow out. That impeller blade is responsible for the majority of snowblower injuries because the blades rotate faster and because the impeller blade is closer to the mouth of the shoot than people realize.”
Prevention is the key to snowblower safety
The Summit Orthopedics hand specialists offer prevention tips to keep your hands safe while clearing snow this winter.
- Know when the risk is highest. Snowblower clogs are most frequent when the temperature is relatively mild and the snow is heavy, wet, and deep. “If it’s 28 degrees or warmer outside, and there are at least six inches of snow on the ground, there’s a high clogging risk,” says Dr. Su. “Risks also increase when the operator has never used a snowblower, or is using it for the first time in the season.”
- Practice situational snowblower safety. Jams are dangerous, but being struck by objects propelled from the discharge chute is another common injury. The blades will throw foreign objects harder and farther than snow. Keep children, pets, and other people at a safe distance while you are clearing snow.
- If the snowblower jams, take safety precautions. “Turn off the machine and disconnect it,” says Dr. Su. “Put on safety glasses before you attempt to clear clogged blades to guard against debris that could be thrown by the cleared blades. Above all, never use your hand to clear the base or the chute of the blower or kick the blower with your foot. Instead, use a sturdy stick to clear the clog. A broom handle or a thick tree branch are the best options. Avoid using thin fibrous sticks. We’ve treated injuries that occur when blades catch on a flexible stick and jerk both the stick and the patient’s hand down into contact with the blades.”
- Don’t try to lift a snowblower from the bottom. The blades, combined with the weight of the machine, are sharp and heavy enough to cause injury. Also, be aware that burns are another common injury. Take care not to touch areas of the machine that tend to get hot, including the muffler or engine.
- Keep a clear head so you can focus on the task at hand. Don’t drink alcoholic beverages before operating your snowblower. If you are clearing a deep snowdrift, be aware that mild carbon monoxide intoxication might be a risk. Breathing exhaust fumes in relatively confined spaces has impaired judgment and caused accidents.
If you are injured, seek medical treatment
“Even small wounds and cuts may contain harmful bacteria; infections are common with these injuries,” observes Dr. Su. “If there is an amputation injury, go to the closest emergency room for treatment.” Severe injuries may require several surgeries to clean wounds and repair damaged tissues. Surgery is usually followed by months of hand therapy to reclaim movement and function.
Make snowblower safety your winter priority
“Although it’s true that we have expertise with these hand injuries, we’d rather never have to demonstrate our skills,” says Dr. Su. “The cold temperatures, snow, and slippery conditions that come with Minnesota winters are challenging enough. We want to raise awareness so that more Minnesotans practice snowblower safety and avoid these devastating injuries.”
Summit Orthopedics supports healthy communities
Community health flourishes when specialized orthopedic care is conveniently available close to home. Summit Orthopedics is proud of our fellowship-trained subspecialty teams offering the full spectrum of orthopedic expertise in bone, tendon, ligament, muscle, and joint conditions—in addition to our wellness, prevention, and rehabilitation services. We have the expertise to proactively improve fitness, evaluate discomfort, and deliver personalized treatment to quickly and safely return you to the lifestyle you love.
Start your journey to a healthier, more active self. Visit our Facebook page to learn about our wellness services and schedule a free wellness consultation online. Find your orthopedic expert, request an appointment online, or call us at (651) 968–5201 to schedule a consultation.
Summit has convenient locations across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We have state-of-the-art centers for comprehensive orthopedic care in Eagan, MN, Vadnais Heights, MN, and Woodbury, MN, as well as several additional community clinics.
More resources for you
Early this winter, Dr. Edward T. Su talked with Minnesota Parent about safety guidelines that can help keep children safe while they are enjoying outdoor activities during winter months.
Snow, ice, and cold temperatures create hazardous conditions outdoors—but winter weather can also increase the risk of a fall indoors. We have some tips to help you keep your footing wherever you go this winter.
A trusty snow shovel or snow blower is a must during a Minnesota winter. These tips will help keep you safe from strains and other injuries while you keep your driveway and sidewalks clear of snow.