10 Safe Shoveling Techniques To Keep Your Back Pain-Free On Site

safe shoveling techniques

Digging and shoveling aren't known as 'back-breaking' work for nothing. 

It's physically demanding​ to the extent of being punishing and can be dangerous if done without the right care and attention. 

Especially for your back. ​

And while a bad back may be worth it if you're digging for hidden treasure. ​

It's certainly not if you're digging up the M62! 

Now if you've done any manual digging at work then I'm sure you'll know what I'm talking about here. 

I can feel the pain just thinking about it. ​

That aching and burning sensation in your lower back that just gets angrier and angrier as the day goes on. 

​It makes your life a misery doesn't it? 

And when you finally get home after a hard day you still can't get any respite.

Because as soon as you slump into a chair for some much needed relief everything stiffens up.

Leaving you with muscle twinges and spasms galore. 

Not to mention sciatic pain shooting down your legs from the inflammation in your muscles pinching and irritating your nerves​. 

All in the name of doing an honest days graft​! 

This leaves you with the choice of working in pain the following day or taking time off to recover and losing money.

And let's face it, we always choose the first option right? ​

​However the problem for trades such as farmers, road workers, bricklayers and gardeners is that long days spent digging and shoveling are unavoidable. 

But if this applies to you it isn't all bad news.

Because it doesn't have to be this painful.

By using the safe digging techniques that I'm going to tell you about you can prevent this pain from happening.

Read on and find out how.

​10 Safe Digging Techniques You Should Be Following

digging technique

Not taking care over how you dig can be dangerous for your back.

Unfortunately many tradespeople get into bad habits while digging and shoveling at work.

Some of the main ones are:​

  • Not warming up beforehand.
  • Lifting too much weight on each 'dig', putting their muscles under extra strain.
  • Digging for long periods without taking a break.
  • Holding their bodies in an awkward position while digging, putting extra strain on their backs.

Don't fall into the same trap!

Instead follow these tips to ensure you are digging and shoveling safely and sensibly.

1. Warm Up

​This is probably the one thing that gets overlooked the most.

But it's absolutely vital that you stretch and warm up before starting to dig.​

I mean you wouldn't attempt to lift 200lbs at the gym or go on a 10 mile run without limbering up first would you?

So why skip it before​ work?

Think about it.​

Digging and shoveling for long periods is bloody hard work.

So it makes sense to give your body every chance​ of making it through unscathed.

So before you pick up that shovel, make sure your muscles are warm and ready.

​By running through a series of dynamic stretches to loosen up and get your blood pumping you'll be good to go.

Not only will you perform better, you'll also lower the chance of injuring yourself.​

To find out more about stretching and what stretches you can do click here.​

2. Keep​ Your Core Muscles Strong

Pilates for back pain

​You need to keep your body strong enough to withstand the rigours of working hard on site.

This applies to all forms of sitework, not just digging and shoveling.​

And having strong core muscles can really help you.

Because they help to protect, stabilise and support your spine.

In addition they reduce the strain and load on your lower back as you move.

And help you to maintain good balance and posture too.

So having a strong core will help you massively.

As it will protect your back from the powerful movements needed to dig, shovel​ and lift.

Which will greatly lower the chance of you injuring your back.

You can strengthen your core using specific exercises or through a variety of activities including yoga, pilates and swimming. ​

To find out more about core-strengthening click here.​

3. Maintain A Good Digging Posture

It's really important to keep your body aligned and positioned correctly while digging as this will minimise any strain on your lower back.

So you need to make sure you maintain a good posture at each stage of the dig.

​As a guide you should aim for the following:

  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart and have your shoulders and hips facing towards the load you are going to be digging or shoveling.
  • If shoveling keep your knees bent, back straight and push from the the handle, shifting your weight from your back leg to your front leg rather than bending at the waist. 
  • If digging keep the shovel head standing straight at a 90 degree angle from the ground with your feet close by and the handle in front of you.
  • Keeping your back straight use your weight to push down with one foot centred on the blade.
  • Once the blade is in the the ground step back with one foot.
  • Now engage your core muscles, bend your knees and squat down with your legs apart, but remember to keep you back straight while doing so.
  • Use the momentum of this movement to pivot the head of the shovel to load it up ready for the lift.

4. Lift With Your Legs

lift with legs

​Now you are ready for the lift and this is where technique is vital.

Because you always need to lift with your legs rather than your back.

So making sure your knees are bent and your back is straight, engage your core muscles and use the power of your legs to lift the weight of the load.

This protects your back from any excessive bending ​that would put it under great strain during an extended period of digging.

5. Don't Twist

don't twist when digging

One of the biggest causes of back pain from digging and shoveling is when you twist your body to throw the load off to the side or over your shoulder.

Don't do it!

Repetitive twisting will cause havoc on your back.​

So if you can it's always better to get rid of the load by throwing it straight in front of you.

However if you do need to throw it to the side or behind you.

Lift it first then move your feet and turn your whole body in unison, rather than keeping your feet planted and only twisting at the waist.​

​Your back will thank you immensely for it.

6. Hold Your Shovel Correctly

hold shovel correctly

How you hold the shovel plays a big part in how much strain your back comes under.

Because if you place both hands up by the handle when digging/shoveling it can force you into an awk​ward position that makes bending from the back unavoidable.

So to keep this strain off your back and limit excessive bending you need to keep your hands apart.

Ideally they should be about 12" apart, with one hand on the handle and the other closer to the blade.

This puts you in a much more stable​ position and lowers the chance of injuring your back.

It will also help you if you need to lift heavier loads too, but be wary of this as I'll explain next.​

7. Don't Overload Your Shovel

​Now I don't know about you, but that shovel looks like it's loaded perfectly to me!

But when you're at work you need to be aware of how you're loading yours.​

​Because by loading your shovel to the brim every time you dig, you are just giving your back more to deal with.

And what you save in time you gain in pain!

So keep your loads lighter and don't be tempted to go for gold.​

Also when loading and unloading the shovel make sure the weight of the load stays close to your body.

Because the further away you hold it the more strain your lower back will come under.

And keeping it closer to your body will make it easier to move as well.​

So a win-win.​

And finally, when unloading don't over-extend yourself when throwing the load​.

This overstretching and jolting will do you no favours, so get closer and drop it instead.​

8. Use A Wheelbarrow​

​Photo credit: Berend Broerse

It's a good idea to use a wheelbarrow as you dig rather than moving each individual load on foot all day.

This also limits the need to have to keep twisting and turning as you dig.

Because by placing the wheelbarrow close in front of you​ you don't need to overreach or overstretch yourself when throwing your load.

These things can really help ​to minimise any strain on your back from digging and shoveling all day.

But just be aware that you also need to be careful when unloading the wheelbarrow as that can be a cause of back pain too!

So make sure you:​

  • Don't overload it.
  • When unloading lift from underneath and use an underhand grip.
  • Bend from the knees keeping your back straight and use your leg muscles to lift it up.
  • Once you have it up, keep your back straight and lean into it using your body weight to tilt it forward to empty it.

9. Take Regular Breaks

mindfulness back pain

Even the most simple of tasks can cause an injury when done repetitively.

So you need to be extremely careful when doing a powerful and intense activity like​ digging or shoveling for an extended period of time.

Because the consequences of overdoing it are a nightmare for your back.

So learn to pace yourself and break it up where possible.

Not only will this give your aching muscles a break, it will stop the movements from becoming too repetitive.

So take a break for a few minutes every​ half an hour or so.

Use this time to have a good stretch as this will relieve any tension ​that has built up.

And if you can alternate periods of digging with other tasks then that would be even better.​

A change is as good as a rest after all!​

10. Stay Hydrated​

​Photo credit: Don Harder

Digging and shoveling all day is punishing work and you'll definitely work up a sweat.

So it's important that you keep yourself hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day.

​Not only will this help you to perform better physically.

It will also give you more energy, ward off fatigue and improve your circulation.

Which helps your muscles and joints get the blood, oxygen and nutrients they need to heal and repair.

So you'll be less stiff and sore after a hard days digging.​

Use The Right Equipment

digging equipment

While it's important to practice safe digging techniques, you need to make sure you are using the right equipment for the job too.

Because using the right shovel, wearing the right clothing, and using a good back support belt will all help to reduce your back pain.

Choose The Right Shovel​

​Firstly you need to use the right shovel for the job you are doing.

The different shaped heads are designed for different purposes and using the wrong one will only make the job harder.

Round head shovels are best for when you are digging​ holes and square head shovels are best for when you are moving materials.

So choose accordingly.​

Not only will this make your job easier, it'll​ also put your back under less strain.

​The design of the shovel is also important.

For instance:​

  • Using a long-handled shovel is good because it will stop you from bending over as much.
  • A shovel with curved 'D' handles will help to keep your back straighter as you dig or shovel.
  • Shovels with lightweight heads will mean the loads will hold less weight.
  • Also shovels with smaller heads will stop you from overloading it and lifting too much.

If you're looking for a good shovel that is kind on your back, Bosse Tools have developed a couple of great ones that cover these things and more.

These are especially good for your back as they are long-handled and lightweight (made from fibreglass).

And the genius part of the design is the adjustable 360 degree grip in the middle of the shaft.

Not only will this ensure you keep your hands at the correct distance apart so you can stay in the most stable and supportive position.

By changing the angle of this grip your hand can also face in the same angle as where you are throwing the load.​

This will make it easier to lift and dig while also taking the strain ​off your back, wrist and shoulder.

And these shovels are built for heavy duty use too which is good for site work.

So while they are more expensive than a regular shovel, the pain you'll avoid from using one will be worth it​.

​Take a look for yourself and see what you think:

Bosse Tools Ergonomic Round Point Shovel

Bosse Tools Ergonomic Square Point Shovel

Use A Back Support Belt

I mentioned earlier how important it is to keep your core muscles strong if you are going to avoid back pain while digging and shoveling.

The good news is you can give them a helping hand by wearing a back support belt.

Now it's important to say here that these belts won't make you invincible with a shovel in your hand.

But ​they will work alongside your core muscles to support and stabilise your lower back as you work, dig and lift.

​And they also encourage you to keep a good posture and digging technique.

So it's well worth investing in a good one to give you that extra helping hand.

I've written a review of 6 good ones here, and my top choice is the Bauerfeind Lumbotrain Back Support.​

Wear A Good Pair Of Boots

​You need to feel comfortable and have a good grip when you are digging and shoveling.

This allows you to get good purchase as you perform the powerful movements.

And it'll keep you balanced and correctly aligned, not to mention minimise the chance of any slips or falls. 

So wearing a good pair of work​ boots that have both good support and grip is half the battle.

A good pair that combines both is​ the Keen Utility Men's Pittsburgh Steel Toe Work Boot.

​Wear Gloves

​There's nothing worse than getting blisters while digging is there?

Especially when it happens halfway through the day and you have no choice but to struggle on through the pain.​

So get yourself a decent pair of gloves for digging and shoveling.

A nice thick pair with ​a good grip like these Carhartt Men's Grain Leather Work Gloves are ideal.

​Rounding Up

I hope that you've found few new things here that will help you out during your working day.

Digging and shoveling can be a real pain (literally!) but by following these tips and using the right equipment for the job they don't have to be.

If you have any other tips and advice on this subject I'd love to hear them in the comments box.

​As it is I'll leave you with some old school indie from the Mock Turtles with a great song for gardeners, road workers and farmers everywhere!

Resources used in researching this article:

http://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/ergonomic-digging-techniques-2

https://www.verywell.com/survive-moving-day-without-a-back-injury-297005​

https://www.spineuniverse.com/wellness/ergonomics/tips-snow-shoveling-how-avoid-back-pain​

https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/ergonomics/shovel.html​

Daniel

A 30-something painter and decorator, psychology graduate, and veteran of 5 spinal surgeries. Looking to explore the physical, psychological and emotional effects of living with chronic low back pain.

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