It seems so obvious. We in the Midwest have years of experience with snow blowers, and think we know how to operate them. Yet every year, thousands of snow blower users end up in the hospital with serious injuries.
What is it about these popular machines that continues to prompt so many tragic incidents?
A researcher at the University of Arkansas may have cracked the code. Dr. Bart Hammig’s recent study of more than 30,000 snow blower injuries found a source of hidden power that can lurk, even when an operator presence switch, or "Dead man’s switch," has been invoked and the power to blades cut off.
The problem often starts the same way: with a clogged machine.
"Usually it is wet snow that gets clogged. Wet snow is very difficult to dislodge," Hammig said.
When a chute gets clogged, people get frustrated. Sticks don’t always work to dislodge the snow, and that is when thousands of people every year resort to the worst idea:
"They stick their hand down the chute and try to dislodge the snow. And that is when severe injuries occur," he explained.
How can that happen, when power to the blades is off? Dr. Hammig's research shows that inside all that clogged snow, rotational force is built up just enough to do damage even when the engine is cut completely off.
It's something users have never heard.
"And we know when that's dislodged, it can actually rotate a quarter or a half a turn, which would probably be enough to do damage," said Hammig.
Snow blowers don't contain that warning. Many do follow voluntary standards, which suggest the word 'danger' and/or a pictorial of what can happen.
In Kenny McGill’s case, the Plainfield teenager says he was no novice. His job for about three years was to snow blow the family driveway.
"Every time it snowed, I snow plowed. So it wasn't like something that was different," McGill said of a day in December 2010 that changed his life. "At first I didn't even know my finger was gone and then I took the glove off and I was like, 'Woah.'"
His finger was gone; two of them, in fact. One was later re-attached, but most of his index finger remains missing. He said he knew snow blowers can be dangerous, but the way this accident happened shocked him.
The engine was idle and the blades were off, he said, when he went to clear the clogged chute. An impeller at the base of the chute rotated and sliced his fingers.
McGill's mother, Sheila McGill, was at the grocery store when she got the frantic call -- one she described as "something right out of a horror movie" -- to come home.
The McGills said there was no warning anywhere on the machine that indicated a blade was tucked inside that chute. His family is now suing the snow blower manufacturer and the store that sold it, alleging the machine was unreasonably dangerous and defective.
"If the manufacturer did everything in their power to make sure the machine was safe then we might not be talking. But they didn't," the McGills’ lawyer,Marty Dolan, told NBC Chicago.
Kenny McGill lost more than his index finger that day. A baseball fan and a pitcher on his little league team, he said one of the hardest losses is his ability to play baseball. He’s struggling with the snide remarks of teenagers who make fun of his injury, but trying to move on with schoolwork and a part-time job.
"A lot of things are bad, I just don't like to say it because I don't like to show my weaknesses," he said, hoping his story might save someone else from the kind of injury that impacted his life.
It could be a rough road for his parents, too, who say they re-live the incident every day. They say they struggle with what they now know, and worry others do not.
"Oh it changed all our lives. It changes the way you think, every little thing your child does from that point on, you're more worried… It can happen to anyone," said Sheila McGill.