When the snow flies, nothing beats a snow blower for clearing walks and driveways. But snow blowers are inherently dangerous machines, not only to the operator but to people nearby—some models can throw snow, along with rocks or anything else hidden in the snow, a distance of up to 30 feet. And if you have children in your neighborhood, you need to be extra vigilant because they may not be aware they need to stay away from the snow blower while they run around.
Snow blowers (also known as snow throwers) were involved in an estimated 7,000 injuries in 2011, according to data reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission from hospital emergency rooms. Compared with other household products, snow blowers have a relatively high rate of hospitalization and severe injury, according to our safety experts. A great many injuries occur when consumers try to clear the discharge chute with their hands—causing, in some cases, severe fractures and even amputation.
Injuries to young children associated with snow blowers run the gamut from finger injuries to lacerations, and in the worst case, strangulations when a child's clothing gets caught.
Here are more specifics about the main dangers to keep in mind, for you and your kids, if you plan to use a snow blower.
The discharge chute can spew projectiles. Snow blowers scoop up whatever is on the ground, including rocks and sticks, and shoot them out at dangerous speeds—powerful enough for a rock to break a glass window, in some cases. A child (or pet, or neighbor) who unwittingly crosses into the stream of snow can get hurt by these fast moving objects, including damaging an eye. Be mindful of where the chute is aimed at all times, and be sure no one is in the path of the snow stream. Again, the best bet is to keep kids and pets indoors.
The auger can pull in clothing. The area that pulls in massive amounts of snow is powerful because it has to be—so much so that it can draw in anything in its path, including a loose scarf, jacket, pants, long hair, shoelaces, or drawstrings, for example. A child who runs or falls near a snow blower in operation runs a risk of getting hurt or killed. CPSC data show that within a two-month period from December 2007 to January 2008, two 8-year-old girls suffered the same tragic fate when their jacket hoods got caught in a snow blower. According to a CPSC report, one girl playing outside fell backwards into the path of a snow blower her mother was operating. The hood of her jacket became entangled in the auger of the snow thrower and constricted around her neck, resulting in death. The other girl's clothing also becoming entangled in the auger, causing her to be strangled, according to CPSC records.
Make sure your children are indoors even before you get started, to be completely safe. Once your snow thrower is running, you may not be able to hear a child in your vicinity, and with a turn your child could suddenly be in your path.
The muffler gets hot. Two-stage snow blower models have exposed mufflers that are a burn hazard—even those with "metal muffler guards," which only help prevent a serious burn. (A single-stage model's engine is almost always tucked away, unexposed, underneath the machine.) Even if you keep your kids inside while you clear snow, warn children about this danger, and when you're done clearing snow, always return the snow blower to a locked garage, shed, or storage space to keep children safe.
Keep machines and fuel out of reach. Once your snow blower is turned off, cooled down, and ready to put away, store it in a locked shed or cabinet in your garage or basement to keep kids away from it, and make that area off-limits. A number of child injuries have occurred when children have come near a snow blower that was not in operation, and gotten hurt. CPSC reports describe a 12-year-old boy who was filling a snow blower tire with air that exploded in his face, causing a concussion and an eye injury, and a 9-year-old boy who lacerated an eye when a spring came flying out of a snow blower he was helping to fix. A 7-year-old girl walking into the garage at her home fell and hit her head on a snow blower, resulting in a laceration and loss of consciousness. Never let a child repair, walk near, or operate a snow blower. Also lock up extra fuel for any gas-powered equipment, and make sure children never have access to it.
Other safe-operating guidelines:
Be prepared for the whole job before you start. Wear adequate clothing—warm jacket, hat, gloves, and boots—and have enough fuel in the gas tank to complete the job. Stopping to go in the house for more clothes increases the risk of children or animals accessing the machine unsupervised. Being cold and getting snow in your eyes reduce your awareness and ability to see what's going on, and cold hands can also make it hard to hold the controls properly. And if you add more fuel in the middle of the job, while the muffler is hot, an overspill could ignite on it. If you must refuel, let the engine cool down first.
NEVER tape down the dead man's switch. All new snow blowers have a bar or lever that must be squeezed against the handlebar for the snow-removal operation to remain running. When the operator releases this lever or bar, the spinning auger (or in the case of two stage models, the spinning auger and impeller) that moves the snow shuts off. This may seem inconvenient at times, but it ensures you can't get your hands into a running machine even if you slip and lose your balance. The dead man's switch can prevent serious injury. Never disable it.
Start the snow blower outside. Any internal combustion engine can create carbon monoxide buildup when it's running in an interior space, which can kill you. If you have a two-stage model that allows you to plug it in to start the engine, make sure you have an outdoor-grade extension cord long enough to reach outside.
Clear your yard before the snow falls. Remove twigs, rocks, and of course any toys or other items from your yard so you have fewer things to worry about once they're covered with snow—and can become projectiles.
Protect your eyes and ears. Wear safety glasses to protect your eyes, and ear plugs or hearing protection to help prevent hearing damage, especially with gas-powered models. But note that you will not be able to hear kids or pets with hearing protection in place, reinforcing the need to keep children inside while snow-blowing.
Don't wear loose pants, jackets, or scarves. Loose clothing can get tangled in a snow blower's moving parts.
Use electrical cords safely. For electric models, use a three-pronged extension cord designed for outdoor use and an outlet with ground-fault-circuit-interrupting protection. Then be sure to keep the cord safely away from the spinning auger while working.