Shovels: Background, Challenges and Recommendations

(Photo/video permission granted by Green Heron Tools for use with educational materials through FReSH)

Use the following format to cite this article:

Shovels: Background, challenges, and recommendations. (2017) Farm and Ranch eXtension in Safety and Health (FReSH) Community of Practice. Retrieved from….

A shovel is a tool used for digging and moving material (e.g., dirt, grain, etc.) from one place to another. Shoveling is a strenuous task that can place added stress on a person’s whole body but especially the spine.  When using a shovel, a person is lifting and twisting their body which can place a person at risk for disc compressions and strain injuries. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, over 28,000 people received hospital treatment in 2009 for injuries (e.g., strains to back, shoulder, etc.) due to their use of unpowered garden tools (e.g., shovel, rake, etc.).

The standard shovel was not ergonomically designed but has evolved over the last century. Many shovels in use today by consumers were not chosen by them but given to them, inherited or that was the one available in the shed. However, shovels are not ‘one-size-fits-all’ tool especially for a female user. The following five things should be consider by a person when selecting a shovel:

  1. Weight – Obviously the higher the weight of the shovel and the load, the more strain it will place on a person’s body. However, a person needs to match the weight of the shovel with the type of job that they are doing. For example, the same shovel may not be appropriate to shovel snow in the winter and sand in the summer. The material that the shaft is made of can also impact the weight of the shovel.
  2. Type of Handle – Some shovels have long straight shafts while others have shorter shafts with D-shaped grips or handles. D-grips offer the benefit of allowing the user to keep her/his wrist in a neutral — unbent, untwisted — position. D-grips may also provide additional comfort and control, and oversized D-grips on some tools allow for two-handed digging.
  3. Length – A person needs to consider the length of the handle when choosing a shovel. If the tool is too long for the person then it may be harder for them to use and place them at risk for an injury.
  4. Blade size and shape – The shape and size of the shovel blade depends on the material that you are going to be moving. A larger blade is typically used with less dense material.
  5. Angle – An angled shaft can reduce the strain on a person’s spine.

The following tips are designed to reduce strain on a person’s body when using a shovel:

  • Choose the right tool for your body size and strength
  • Examine the tool to look for any signs of defect or damage. If damaged, do not use it.
  • Do some stretches prior to starting the job to loosen your muscles and increase your blood flow to your muscles.
  • Wear gloves to protect your hands and improve grip and wear sturdy, closed-toed footwear with good arch support.
  • Before your first scoop, decide how and where you will move the material.  
  • Examine your footing to make sure you have a solid place to put your feet and examine the area for obstacles (e.g., pipes, holes, etc.). Stand with your feet apart at a distance that is comfortable for you.  
  • Shoveling is not a race so pace yourself to do the job well without putting additional strain on your back. Take breaks!
  • Keep your back straight and bend your knees slightly so that you can use your leg strength to move the load and have your elbows close to your body. When you lift, straighten your knees so you are lifting with your leg strength instead of your back.
  • If digging with the shovel, use the ball of your foot to put leverage on the shovel blade and use your leg muscles to push down on the blade.
  • Material should not be thrown over three feet and it is a better practice to walk closer to where you need to dump it rather than throwing it. When you are throwing material, turn your feet in the direction of where you are throwing it. Never throw a shovel load over your shoulder.
  • In general, the maximum weight to shovel at a high rate (15 scoops per minute) shovels is approximately 10 – 15 pounds which includes the weight of the shovel and the load.  If a person is shoveling at a slower rate, the shovel and load combination weight could be up to 24 pounds. However, it is better to complete multiple load lifts at a lighter weight than to lift heavier loads less often.


Resources for Women Farmers and Gardeners by Green Heron Tools –


Hansson, P.A. & Oberg, K.E.T. (1996) Journal of Agriucltural Safety and Health 2(3): 127-142. Retrieved from

OSH answer fact sheets: Shoveling. (2011) Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Retrieved from

Safety note #157: Safe use of rakes and shovels (2010) University of California Agriculture and National Resources. Retrieved from

Shoveling 101: usage & techniques. (n.d.) Green Heron Tools. Retrieved from


Summarized and Reviewed by:
Ann Adams, Green Heron Tools
Liz Brensinger, Green Heron Tools
Linda Fetzer, Pennsylvania State University –
Karen Funkenbusch, University of Missouri –
Aaron M. Yoder, University of Nebraska Medical Center –