Snowblower manufacturers, power equipment dealers, doctors and all common sense experts say people must remember one thing when using snowblowers: Never - ever - clear snow, clogged augers or discharge chutes with your hands. Always turn off the machine and use plastic or wooden sticks to get rid of packed snow.
The feeble winter of 2015-16 gave snowblowers the season off. The machines have been needed just once this winter season, for a 5-inch snowfall on Dec. 17, but they have been mostly quiet ever since. So, those starting up machines to clear driveways and sidewalks on Thursday should remember these safety lessons.
People can count the major snow blower safety tips on their fingers, so keeping fingers and tips intact is the first objective. Experts say skin and bone will lose a fight against whirling metal every time.
Many take the challenge. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 15,000 people were injured using snowblowers in 2015. The same year, the commission said, more than 158,000 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms, doctors' offices and clinics for injuries that occurred while shoveling or removing ice and snow manually.
Mangled hands remain the biggest concerns.
"No matter what the material -- snow, ice, dirt, mud, anything clogged in the chute -- never under any circumstance use your hands," said Derek Melsheimer, marketing manager at Emerich Sales and Service in Charlton. "On the newer machines, they have rods connected to them, otherwise you can use a stick. Never use your hands. The pressure is still built up (in the augers), and once you release that pressure, the augers and propellers are in use and you lose part of your fingers, a finger or your hand."
Melsheimer has seen customers who risked all and reaped pain. He said the power tool safety video that plays constantly in his store mentions the hands-and-snowblower warning three times.
People shouldn't think heavy work gloves worn during a power session in the snow will protect hands caught in the wrong place.
"You could have chain metal gloves on, and they wouldn't help," Melsheimer said.
Dr. Frank Dimase, chief of emergency medicine at St. Peter's Hospital in Albany, saw mangled hands and fingers during his residency at Bay State Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, but that was years ago. He has not seen many winter snowblower injuries during his time at St. Peter's.
"It's like the Fourth of July," Dimase said. "Sometimes we'll have many injuries in two days, same thing with storms. The last couple years, we haven't seen many storms in the Capital Region. It's usually proportional to the weather."
A hand caught in a snowblower will often require extensive surgery.
"It's really life-changing," Dimase said. "It oftentimes leads to permanent disability."
While snowblowers produce the most graphic hand injuries, the machines can cause other other problems for physicians.
"It's not just limited to hand injuries," Dimase said. "Oftentimes, people will hurt their backs trying to move the snowblower manually."
Tim Bachand, owner of Burnt Hills Hardware, said he's heard about people trying to kick the snow away from clogged moving parts. He said not all snowblower concerns are medical -- he said people must pay attention when augers are in rotation.
"You start off slow and let the machine do the work," Bachand said. "You can't have your iTunes on; you have to listen to the machine."
And people have to look out for more than just the deep cushion of snow in front of them. Sometimes car parts, dog leashes and tree branches can end up in driveways, which end up in snowblowers. Then the snowblowers end up in repair shops.
"Before any snowstorm, it's a good idea to walk the property you're going to need to clear the next day and remove any obstructions," Bachand said.
Both Bachand and Melsheimer said snowblower sales have been good this season. It helps, they said, when snow falls before Christmas.
"Pre-season was excellent," said Bachand, whose store carries Simplicity and Husqvarna brands. "We had a lot of interest -- more than I (expected). It's usually predicated on last season's winter, and last year was a dud."
According to Cub Cadet, which manufactures snowblowers and other power tools, snowblower operators should always:
- Start their machines and let them run for a few minutes in a well-ventilated space before rolling into their driveways.
- Make sure all exterior clothing -- coats, sweaters, parkas -- are safely tucked in.
- Be cautious when operating a snowblower on gravel surfaces, because stones can be picked up and thrown by the machine.
Swedish manufacturer Husqvarna also has some suggestions. Company safety tips include:
- Never consume alcohol when running a snowblower.
- Always wear safety goggles and gloves, as almost all models of snowblowers typically vibrate during operation. This can promote hand fatigue -- the longer you use the snow blower, the more likely you are to lose control of the machine.
- Eye wear is important because snowblowers can propel frozen projectiles into the eyes. Eyewear should never be skin-tight, as this can promote fogging and reduce visibility.
- Fresh gasoline, stored on a shelf in the garage and not on the floor, should always be used.