As any seasoned recreational skier will attest, the risk of sustaining an injury on the slopes is constant, even on the most meticulously managed runs. That risk is even more prevalent for the professionals who protect and assist ski-hill patrons.
Between 2009 and 2013, injuries to ski instructors in British Columbia accounted for 55 per cent of all accident claims on ski hills, followed by lift attendants (21 per cent of claims) and patrollers (12 per cent). The most common injuries are falls from elevation / same level, which cumulatively account for 52 per cent of all ski-hill accidents in the province.
Reducing employee injury is therefore of prime importance for many top ski resorts. Fortunately, the task isn’t as daunting as one might think. “It all begins with basic safety measures,” says Ryan Stimming, risk manager of Panorama Mountain Village. “For example, newcomers to our staff must familiarize themselves with their surroundings, the green and blue runs, and anticipate changing snow conditions, from top to bottom and from morning to afternoon.”
Jeremy Griffiths, patrol and safety director for Silver Star Mountain Resort, agrees that basic safety training goes a long way in keeping staff accident-free. “Back injuries are common for patrollers, but we radically reduced the frequency of this type of accident by teaching Silver Star staff to bend at the knees instead of bending over to pick up heavy objects.”
Ken Hammell, risk management and safety programs director for Sun Peaks Resort, adds that consistency is the key to any safety initiative. “We conduct daily safety meetings in all of our departments,” he says. “The hazard may be icy weather conditions that could cause slips or frostbite, and the prevention may be as straightforward as limbering up and dressing warmly.”
It’s easy to see why the three categories of employee are so accident-prone. “Instructors are often in motion with their clients, so their attention is compromised and they wind up spraining wrists or ankles,” says Hammell. In the past at Sun Peaks, instructors would occasionally guide their pupils down the slopes between their legs, which invited injury if one or the other fell. To forestall that issue, the resort mandated that instructors instead hold poles to guide young skiers.
Patrollers face a multitude of hazards, from straining muscles while aiding fallen skiers to losing their grip while rappelling down inclines. “They are truly in the elements and therefore very susceptible to danger,” says Griffiths, who this year augmented his safety and training program by risk-assessing every activity and maintaining near-miss accident logs. “These initiatives make staff doubly aware of the dangers they face and enable us to modify our activities to achieve optimum safety,” he says.
While the focus of training has traditionally been directed at patrollers, lift attendants give safety managers a unique set of challenges. “Lifties tend to be young and inexperienced, plus they’re susceptible to lift-related injuries – getting hit by chairs – as well as the usual ski-related accidents.” Many of these problems are solved by prudent work policies. “For example, to prevent lifties from pulling shoulder muscles because they stop chairs all day, we rotate their schedules so that they spend half of their shift at the top of the lift and the other half at the bottom.”
Carefully thought-out work policies are an integral part of any safety program. Griffiths summarizes the on-going challenge of keeping ski hill employees safe this way: “Safety training is only as effective as the frequency with which it’s practised. Don’t just teach staff how to rappel out of a lift each season. Instead, retrain them every month. And daily habits such as checking one’s own equipment should be mandatory. If you want to keep your WorkSafeBC rates at a reasonable level, this is the effort you have to expend.”