Harm after the storm: Misuse of snow blowers can lead to hand injury


When snow falls in profusion, Dr. Keith Segalman expects to be busy. A hand surgery specialist at Union Memorial Hospital's Curtis Hand Center, he knows of about seven serious hand injuries caused by the improper use of snow blowers after two recent snowstorms.

Once people climbed out of this past weekend's storm, Dr. Segalman was prepared to see more injuries, ranging from severe nerve and tendon injuries and fractures to finger and hand amputations.

"I'm afraid everyone's going to start digging out today and . . . do some silly things," he says.

Snow blowers, operated with fans with blades that break up and throw snow, can easily become clogged. "The first thing is to try to avoid clogging it," Dr. Segalman says. "Don't push the limits of what the machine will clean out.

"Once it does start to get clogged, you need to let the whole thing stop entirely." Even with the motor disengaged or turned off, don't use your hand to remove snow chunks, the surgeon says. Instead, "Use a piece of wood, a shovel butt, anything but your hand."

The angled blades of a snow blower are not razor-sharp, but, "They cut off fingers, sometimes tips, other times as much as a whole hand," Dr. Segalman says. "Most often the injury is a fingertip injury that is not replantable." To make matters worse, it is usually the hand used the most that is injured, he says.

Because snow blowers have multiple blades, trapped fingers are cut repeatedly and mangled. Injuries are rarely clean, making it difficult to replant a finger or fingertip. "This is the kind of injury we really can't do a whole lot for," Dr. Segalman says.

When a finger is replanted, extensive physical therapy follows. Still, "There is always some degree of numbness and stiffness," Dr. Segalman says. "It works, that's the most important thing, but it is never a normal digit."

Hand injuries caused by snow blowers are costly. Citing a study published in a recent Journal of Hand Surgery, Dr. Segalman says that the average cost for replanting a finger or repairing arteries after a power-tool-related injury is $17,000. Study subjects lost an average of 62 days of work, and half of them were unable to return to their previous jobs.

Snow blowers, which are powered by 3- to 16-horsepower engines, are no more invincible than their users.

The hard, crusty snow that fell through Saturday does not break up well and can cause a snow thrower to buck and clog, says Daniel J. Schmidt, manager of J. P. Fuller Inc., a Glen Burnie outdoor equipment supply company.

"They are not meant to blow ice, not to mention that can do damage to the snow blower," he says. Powdery or wet snow make the best conditions for using a snow blower, Mr. Schmidt says.

He also recommends letting a machine sit outside to reach the outside temperature before using it. That way, wet and cold snow will not stick to its warmer surface, causing it to jam up. Removing toys and other objects from the snow blower's path is also important, he says.

Dr. Segalman also reminds those who use electric snow blowers not to cut across the cord. Even if the machine is grounded with rubber handles, "You can get a serious electrical injury . . . the equivalent of putting a finger in a socket."

For those vulnerable to heart attacks who may believe a snow blower is a safe alternative to shoveling snow, Dr. Segalman says that maneuvering snow removal equipment is still "fairly strenuous" and to "stay indoors and hire someone to do it for you."

So far, Dr. Segalman has seen no youngsters with snow blower-related injuries: "Most people are smart enough not to let children use the equipment, thank God."

When talking to sales personnel about snow blowers during the off-season, "People ask every question in the book," Mr. Schmidt says. "When in the frenzy of the snow storm, people just buy, buy, buy. We tell them what we can, but they just get home, unload the thing and start blowing snow."

"We stress to everyone to read the [snow blower] manual," Mr. Schmidt says. "We walk around and explain to everyone how to run it, the do's and don'ts. But how long will the human mind remember these things?"

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