Researchers Caution: Handle Snow Blowers with Care

As winter weather approaches, homeowners may prepare by dusting off the snow blower--and its safety manual. Clearing the driveway with a snow blower doesn't have to be a dangerous task. But, unclog a snow blower with your hand, instead of the chute-cleaning tool, and you risk broken bones or amputation.

According to researcher Bart Hammig of the University of Arkansas, injuries most commonly occur when the operator does not follow the instructions in the safety manual and attempts to remove snow from the blades of the snow blower with a hand.

Hammig and colleague Ches Jones analyzed data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System from 2002 to 2008 and found the majority of injuries occurred among those aged 40 and older, with males accounting for 90 percent of the visits to emergency rooms.

When a snow blower is operating, the auger blades sometimes become clogged with snow and will no longer spin. Although the machine is switched off, the researchers wrote, "The blades may store up rotational force and rotate briefly once the snow is cleared." If a hand is the tool being used to clear the snow, the blade will most likely amputate the limb or break bones.

The annual average of snow blower-related injuries is about 4,615 and has not lessened over time despite advances in safety standards. When it comes to prevention, Hammig said, "Education is very consumer driven. It is just a matter of understanding how the machine works and getting to know the machine before using it."

Today, there are different types of snow blowers; some have one auger blade while others may have two blades.

"Sometimes people don't realize there are actually two augers, and so they stick their hand in the top thinking there is only one on the bottom, and it cuts off their hand," he said.

Manufacturers have addressed the risk by providing a chute-cleaning tool, which is now standard on most models and is a hand-held shovel-shaped device that is attached to the machine for use when blades become clogged.

"Unless manufacturers can come up with a new and safer design, prevention will rely on consumer education," Hammig said.

The researchers published results of their study in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine. Hammig is an assistant professor and Jones is a professor, both in health sciences at the University of Arkansas.

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