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Snow-Blower Injuries -- Colorado, New York

Following recent heavy snowfalls in Colorado and New York, CDC received reports of hand injuries caused by snow-blowers.

Colorado: On December 24, 1982, a record 24-36 inches of heavy, wet snow blanketed the Denver metropolitan area. As a follow-up to previous investigations of the public health impact of snow disasters (1-3), an investigation was begun. Emergency-room (ER) logs of 14 hospitals (representing approximately 80% of metropolitan Denver ER visits) were reviewed before and after the blizzard. Fourteen snow-blower-related amputations, occurring the week after the storm, were identified. Additional surveys of ER logs found 12 more persons who sustained lacerations while using snow-blowers. Twenty-five of the total 26 persons with snow-blower-related injuries were interviewed. All were male; their average age was 44 years. All injuries occurred to the hand; 13 (52%) were finger amputations, and 12 (48%) were lacerations without amputation. Twelve (48%) persons had injury to a single finger; eight (32%), to two fingers; four (l6%), to three fingers; and one (4%), to the palm only. The middle finger was most commonly affected (45%), followed by the index (30%) and ring (20%) fingers. Snow-blowers used by these persons were of various brands and models (nine manufacturers and at least 15 models).

Comparison of these cases with controls (consisting of the patients' friends and neighbors who had used snow-blowers during the week after the snowfall) revealed that snow-blowers with clogged exit chutes were operated by significantly more injured persons (88%) than by controls (64%) (p=0.04). Of the injured persons and controls whose snow-blowers had clogged with snow, 95% (21/22) of the injured persons had used their hands to dislodge the snow, compared with 14% (2/14) of controls (p 0.001). For all cases and controls, there were no significant differences in age, sex, type of snow-blower used, (including manufacturer, model, and age of snow-blower), previous experience in using snow-blowers, or previous experience with the same model snow-blower.

Of the 21 persons whose injuries were caused by placing hands into snow-clogged chutes, 10 (48%) knew that the blades were still engaged and spinning; six (29%) had disengaged the blade, without realizing the blades continued to spin after disengagement; three (14%) said the blades started again while the snow was being cleared, and two (9%) assumed the blades were disengaged. Of those persons who knew the blades were engaged and spinning, most thought the blades were farther away from the chute opening than they actually were. In addition, virtually all injured persons stated that they could not see the blades when the chutes were clogged with snow.

New York: On January 15, 1983, the first major snowstorm of the 1982-1983 winter season struck Albany, and 24 inches of light, granular snow accumulated within 36 hours. To assess snowblower-related injuries caused by this storm, ER records of 11 area hospitals were reviewed from January 15 to 18. These hospitals serve an area encompassing six counties and approximately 850,000 people.

Twenty snow-blower-related injuries were identified, 19 (95%) of which occurred January 16, 1983, the day the storm ended, and represented 3.1% of that day's 610 ER visits. Thirteen (65%) injuries were finger lacerations, and four were complete or partial finger amputations. Seven injuries also resulted in fractures of the distal or middle phalanx of the injured finger(s). Of those persons with finger injuries, 16 were males, and one was a 73-year-old female. Injured males ranged in age from 14 to 70 years, with a mean of 44 years. The estimated rate for snow-blower-related finger injuries from this storm was 1.92 cases per 100,000 population.

Three non-finger, snow-blower-related injuries were reported--one ankle contusion not resulting in a laceration or fracture and two sprained backs. A 70-year old man collapsed and died while operating a snow-blower, presumably from cardiac arrest. Reported by Denver Area Emergency Room Directors and Administrators, D Ouimette, S Tinnell, P Shillam, R Hopkins, MD, State Epidemiologist, Colorado Dept of Health; Albany Capital District Emergency Room Directors and Administrators, C Lundy, L Fisher, D Morse, MD, R Rothenberg, MD, State Epidemiologist, New York State Dept of Health; Div of Field Svcs, Epidemiology Program Office, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Further studies of snow-blower injury rates and characteristics of snow storms are currently underway. In Colorado, the present study showed that using hands to clean the snow-blowers' clogged exit chutes caused the injuries. Not knowing that in some machines the blades continued to spin after disengagement, that the stopped blades might still be under some torque and could resume spinning as soon as the snow was removed, or that the blades were near the opening of the chute may have given some persons a feeling of false security as they put their hands into the chutes to clear them of snow (4). A previous review of snow-blower injuries reported that some persons could not explain the apparently irrational act of trying to clean a clogged snow-blower with their hands; exhaust fumes may have led to mild carbon monoxide intoxication (4). This seems more probable if the snow blowers were operated in a relatively confined air space, such as a deep snow drift.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission estimates that 3,000 persons are treated in emergency rooms in the United States for snow-blower injuries each year. Another study estimated at least 5.3 injuries per 1,000 machines occur annually (5). Further study of snow-blower injuries is needed to ascertain the possible benefits from increased consumer education; however, it appears from these data that designing machines less likely to clog with snow or designing them with mechanisms to stop blades when clogging occurs could significantly reduce the risk of injury.

References

  1. Glass RI, O'Hare P, Conrad JL. Health consequences of the snow disaster in Massachusetts, February 6, 1978. Am J Public Health 1979;69:1047-9.

  2. Faich G, Rose R. Blizzard morbidity and mortality, Rhode Island, 1978. Am J Public Health 1979;69:1050-2.

  3. CDC. Public health impact of a snow disaster. MMWR 1982;31:695-6.

  4. Gould LV, Hughes EC, Jr, Lehrman A. Snowblower injuries. NY State J Med 1974;74:887-9.

  5. Waller, JA. Snowblower injuries. J Trauma 1977;17:122-5.

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