Avoid winter-related injuries

It’s cold… And snowy… And there’s ice…

For many people, that’s reason enough to stay indoors. It’s the season where crossing a parking lot can put us at risk of injury, but it’s also time for our favourite activities like skiing, skating, hockey and other winter sports.

Whether you want to be safer while participating in favourite activities — or are simply looking for ways to survive the season — we’ve got some tips to keep you safe from harm.

Everyday activities

Icy paths and parking lots can be a hazard for people of all ages, but there are some things we can do to mitigate the risk:

– Choose footwear with heavy trends and made from rubber or a non-slip material. True, low heels and thick soles aren’t the most stylish options, but they’re the safest. You can also buy slip-on grips or cleats for some extra grip on ice.

– If needed, use walking poles or a cane with an ice-pick tip to help maintain your balance.

– Stick to ploughed and sanded paths. If you can’t avoid ice, lean forward slightly and take short strides. Try to stay loose and don’t lock your knees. (Shuffling also works).

– Be careful getting in and out of cars — that’s when a lot of falls occur.

According to the Canada Safety Council, boomers are the group most prone to falling on ice, but people over the age of 60 are more likely to be hospitalized as the result of a fall. People over the age of 80 tend to need longer hospital stays — sometimes two weeks or more. Additional devices such as a hip protector or walking can help provide stability. (See the CSC website for more information.

Safe snow removal

We love to play and exercise in the snow, but dealing with it in our driveways is another matter. What should you be doing to protect yourself from injury or heart attack?

– Warm up. Athletes don’t dive directly into weight lifting and aerobic exercise, but that’s often what we do when we get out the shovel. At the very least, you should stretch your back, shoulders and arms. Some experts even recommend some light activity first — like walking on the spot for 15 minutes.

– Perfect your technique. Use a light weight, push-type snow shovel and push the snow to the side rather than throwing it. Removing smaller amounts more often is better than tackling a big load.

If you have to throw snow, bend your knees and use your arms to do the work rather than your back. Keep your back straight and avoid any twisting or turning.

– Stay in shape and keep up with those strength training exercises. People who are in good physical shape are better prepared for strenuous activities like snow shoveling. Weight bearing exercise also helps guard against strain and injury.

– Stop for a rest if you’re feeling tired, and get help if you’re feeling any chest or back pain.

As with any other change to your physical activity, you should talk to your doctor if you have questions or concerns.

Are snow blowers the safer route to go? These handy machines aren’t without their own risks, warn experts. In North America, thousands of people wind up in the emergency room each year because they don’t follow safety precautions. Most injuries involve the hands — such as severe cuts, broken bones, damaged joints and even finger amputation.

To stay safe:

– Read your product’s instruction manual and safety precautions.

– Be on the lookout for any rocks, branches or other foreign objects in your path.

– Keep hands and feet away from any moving parts.

– If the machine gets clogged, turn it off and use a stick or similar object to clear the snow away from the discharge chute or augers (collectors). Never use your hands — that’s how most snow blower injuries occur. Once the clog is cleared, the blades can jump or move.

– Don’t run the machine in an enclosed area. (There have been a few carbon-monoxide related deaths because of snow blowers).

– Avoid wearing long scarves, loose clothing or any items that could get caught.

– Keep kids and pets away from the area.

For more information, see the Commission Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety websites.

Sports and outdoor activities

Hockey, skating, snow football, skiing, snowshoeing: We love our winter sports. A few precautions can help keep you active all season long.

– Don’t go alone. Take a buddy and tell someone where you’re doing and when you’ll be back.

– Wear sun-protection. Yes, you still need sunscreen for your skin and lips as well as protection for your eyes. Special glasses can reduce glare in the snow.

– Check conditions. Sudden drops in temperature, freezing rain, poor visibility and wind chill factors can all affect your safety. Tune in to your favourite weather service before you head out, and find a way to keep tabs on changes (like weather alerts to your mobile device).

– Dress warmly and in layers. Experts recommend a having light-weight “wicking” layer closest to your skin to draw moisture away (that includes your gloves and socks as well). A wind-breaking outer layer is also essential, and so is a good hat.

– Wear the right equipment. Make sure you’ve got the proper gear and that it’s in good working condition. Clothes should fit well and provide freedom of movement, and footwear should be sturdy and supportive.

– Warm up. Cold muscles, joints and tendons are more prone to injury — especially your calves and Achilles tendons.

– Hydrate. Experts agree that you need to get plenty of fluids before, during and after exercise regardless of the time of year. Stay clear of alcohol despite its warming effects — it narrows your blood vessels and increases the risk of hypothermia.

– Stop when you’re tired. When you are fatigued you’re more likely to make an error in balance and judgment, or to let your perfect form slide.

– Know the warning signs of hypothermia and frostbite — and get help when you see them. Changes to the skin (developing blistering or numb patches, or turning grey/blue or cold, white and hard), uncontrollable shivering, loss of coordination, difficulties speaking, loss of control over small muscles (like the fingers) and a strong urge to sleep are all indicators of trouble.

Over all, we can’t avoid winter so we should enjoy it — or at least find ways to make it safer for ourselves and our families. The best thing you can do is be informed and prepared — stop if you think the situation isn’t safe.

The Better Health Channel – Winter sports and cold-related injuries (PDF file)
Commission Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Healthy Alberta: Being Active Outside

Additional Sources: HealthyOntario.ca, SafeCanada.ca (now www.publicsafety.gc.ca),

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Wouter van Caspel

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