The “science of shoveling”

Reading an article like this about the “science of shoveling” makes me glad that someone out there is seriously concerned about the best way to shovel:

The science of shoveling was invented by the Progressive Era efficiency expert (and father of Taylorism) Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor observed laborers shoveling varying weights and concluded that the shovel load with which “a first class man would do his biggest day’s work” was about 21 pounds. That’s remarkably close to the current recommendation from Canada’s Center for Occupational Health and Safety (keep per-shovel snow loads below 24 pounds). At the Bethlehem Steel works in Pennsylvania, Taylor gave out shovels specifically designed to hold 21 pounds—small ones for shoveling iron ore, big ones for shoveling ash—and made “thousands of stop-watch observations” to calculate the most efficient shoveling method.

Taylor’s purpose was not to preserve workers’ health but to maximize output; by following his recommendations, Bethlehem was able to increase the daily weight shoveled by each laborer from 16 to 59 tons. But because physical endurance was a necessary component to maximizing output, Taylor’s shoveling method also reduced wear and tear on the human body…

The other change is that, even taking into account that Taylor’s subjects were all experienced manual laborers, people must have had much stronger backs back then.Today, ergonomists worry less about manual laborers’ arms than about their backs, because the lower back (specifically the lumbosacral junction) is now understood to be the weakest link in the “body segment chain.” The same goes for anyone in the general population who shovels snow. Various technological innovations have been attempted to protect the back and reduce muscle strain generally, thereby lowering the risk of heart failure. A shovel with a longer shaft makes the initial part of the job easier, but it makes the part where you actually lift the snow harder. Many stores sell a snow shovel with a bent shaft, which is widely recognized as the optimal ergonomic design. This type of shovel has the opposite problem. It makes the initial part of the job harder (you have to stoop, especially if you’re tall or fat), but makes the part where you actually lift the snow easier.

It makes sense that Taylor is behind some of these ideas, particularly since shoveling was tied to manufacturing. I have seen these ergonomic shovels and may just have to purchase one after reading this in order to protect “the weakest link in the body segment chain.” So why aren’t there more strenuous advertisements for the health benefits of these ergonomic shovels?

In my shoveling yesterday, my technique was generally to use a smaller shovel (actually the biggest one we have but still relatively smaller) and lift and throw snow more frequently. I imagine the throwing motions I was using are not optimal – however, they were necessary in order to clear the four foot snow drifts that were already there. It sounds like I would be better off with a slightly bigger shovel so that I don’t have to lift as often.

And a couple of links in this story are interesting:

-Harvard provides some guidelines about shoveling. Basically, you shoveling may be problematic if you are out of shape or don’t exercise often, shovel first thing in the morning, and are exposed to extreme cold. (This is part of a full page about health for older men. Are older men the primary shovelers or are they are the ones most at risk?)

-One might wonder about the relative risk of shoveling: is this more dangerous than other activities? On the whole, heart attacks while shoveling represent a small proportion of the total heart-related deaths in the US each year: “The absolute risk of death-while-shoveling is low. An often-quoted statistic holds that 1,200 American die from a heart attack or other cardiac event during or after a blizzard every year, and that snow-shoveling is frequently to blame. This figure is sometimes attributed to the Centers for Disease Control, although an agency spokeswoman could not verify its source. Even if this statistic were correct, it’s nothing in comparison to the total number of annual heart-related deaths. According to the American Heart Association, there are 425,425 deaths per year from coronary heart disease.” That comes out to 0.3%.

h/t Instapundit