Your shovel is trying to kill you

A technologist's guide to the snow-pocalypse

Normally, following the arrival of the daily Talking Points fax from Mainstream Media central control, I do my best to write about the issues on the list of What's Important Today.

As a tech writer this is often difficult, because the MM doesn't really do technology coverage except to make a big deal about how cute the new iPhone is, how adorable the last iPhone was and how much all right-thinking people lust after the next iPhone, and How Technology is Transforming Society (primarily after the writer learned to download apps onto a new iPhone).

So, even though it would be a lot more interesting to write about Egypt, if only to follow any story that includes the line "groups of government supporters riding horses and camels plowed into crowds of protesters wielding whips and sticks."

Still, despite how much we all loved snow as kids for both entertainment and school-avoidance properties, it has since become clear that snow is a deliberate provocation and direct threat to all of our lives.

TV news and newspapers drive hysteria very effectively, of course. If you get your news online, however, you may miss the opportunity quake in fear as you selfishly focus on topics that are more realistic and interesting to you.

As a service to the Mainstream Media Engendering Fear committee, I will port the step-by-step sequence of hysteria creation and response into what TV and newspaper people still refer to as "new" media:

First, warn of impending disaster:

Midwest buckles under major winter storm, 30 states [are] crippled by 'life-threatening' winter storm and Groundhog Day Storm to be severe raise our anxiety level and sets us up for the potential of snow to kill, which is a good beginning. Watching the snow track: how bad will it be? adds to the foreboding, while global concern -- Fifty-year storm dumps snow from Texas to Maine and Winter storm paralyses over half the US (Australia), In photos: US winter storm -- shows this is not simply a locally overhyped story about a snowstorm in the winter.

Video and the involvement of the federal government adds credibility to the threat: Video: FEMA Chief: Saving Lives Priority No. 1 as Winter Storms Bear Down; as does Area agencies in disaster mode.

Showing money dedicated to emergency response raises the credibility level further FEMA: VDOT Receives $3 Million in Snow Disaster Aid ‎, Anne Arundel DPW Receives $1.5M in Snow Disaster Aid.

Second: Raise the hysteria level:

Blizzard Watch: Emergency Responders Preparing for the Worst is the air-raid warning building up to a hysterical scream; Brownback declares 53 counties disaster areas helps define the scope of damage already done.

Chicago Blizzard 2011 Is Called Snowmaggedon increases the volume and hysteria level, with help from The Snowpocalypse Tsunami To Hit Downtown Chicago? ‎ (from Golf Talk magazine!), and more personal experiences (Roof peeled off like a tin can,Katie Couric Helps Barry Diller Escape Snow Car Crisis) and existential worries add depth to the concern (Snow, Sleet, Freezing Rain: Why Such Manic Weather?).

Third, since the world has not yet ended, outline specific risk to individual readers:

Has the massive winter storm affected you? How?, Winter Storm Makes Roadways Dangerous are a good start on personalizing the danger

Be aware of the dangers of shoveling is a sotto voce warning of a more specific risk; Medical: Snow removal raises risks for shovelers is more direct, backing up its warning with news that winter sports injure 500,000 Americans per year and shoveling specifically injures 26,000, resulting in 11,500 medical emergencies annually.

Shoveling is not for weak of heart attempts to (ahem) dishearten us about our ability to deal with the problem; Shoveling snow can cause a heart attack, the American Heart Association warns drives home the point and backs it up with medical expertise.

Fourth, tips on how to not die quite as badly as you would without our advice:

Fifth: offer tips on what shovels will make shoveling easier:

None of them make it easier. Not even this.

Here's why:

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. One Canadian study compared the standard snow shovel with the ergonomic snow shovel and concluded that each type strained different bicep muscles and that the ergonomic shovel wasn't significantly better for your back than the straight model. "It might be appropriate to use both types," it concluded. -- Slate

Products like this or this might help. Or you could accomplish the same thing by cutting the handle off an old shovel, attaching it to the midpoint of an existing shovel (use a hose clamp or a nut and bolt drilled through both the shaft of the new shovel and handle of the new one) to give yourself a better grip in the middle of the shovel so you can lift the snow more with your legs and shoulders than your back.

Fifth (only for press writing for technical audiences), offer solution too expensive and complex for normal people to comprehend:

Try using one of these instead. Or follow this advice. Or just try this.

Thanks for reading. Go outside and play with a kid now.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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