Most people who get an entry-level seasonal job aren’t in it for the paycheck. Traditionally, the attraction for employees who choose to work the parks, operate lifts, teach skiing, or even park cars are the perks inherent with a mountain resort gig—primarily the chance to ski or ride for free.
With on-snow time being the driver for many seasonal and hourly employees, it’s important to manage the risk that comes with their time on snow, both on and off the clock. Blown knees, dislocated shoulders, or worse, are the kinds of injuries that make risk managers and human resource staff shudder. Workers’ comp, employee downtime, and loss of productivity add operating costs. And managers can also struggle to fill positions mid-winter. Plus, no one wants to see a colleague or a valued staff member taken out due to an accident or injury.
How to manage the varied risks? There are a number of strategies. To limit workers’ comp, most resorts have employees punch out on their breaks, so they are not skiing or riding on the clock. And for all employees, on the clock or otherwise, some resorts take proactive safety measures, such as checking and testing equipment before the snow flies, and ongoing risk assessment and communications during the season.
“Each department has its own issues,” says Aspen Skiing Company director of safety and wellness Steve Howard. “The $20 million question is: How do you have people working in a sport that is inherently dangerous and not get hurt?” Despite the challenges posed to risk managers, Howard says most accidents are preventable. The key, he says, is to be proactive and communicative.
Ryan Lavoie, VP risk management for Peak Resorts, agrees. “First and foremost is basic education,” he says. Lavoie cites a variety of Peak Resorts’ efforts to actively engage staff, including employee orientation sessions specifically for staff that ski or ride. Topics include safety while on the job, strategies to prevent ACL injury and collisions, and how to stay fit for duty. The latter also covers how to manage off-the-clock snow time, and making good decisions. The aim is for staff to ask themselves, “Do I need to or want to hit that feature, or go skiing in the trees right now?”
Howard notes that Aspen takes a similar educational approach across its four mountains. “Any new hires have three to four hours of orientation, and safety is a big chunk of that time,” he says. The resort increases its safety-related messaging for several key departments. “There is an additional all-day training for returning lift ops, with ski patrol undergoing two days of training, including an examination of how injuries take place, fall protection—we even talk about shoveling-safety methods and how to use snow blowers,” says Howard.
Inspect and Assess
Equipment testing and inspection is a crucial proactive step, according to Lavoie. It ensures that neglected gear doesn’t lead to an injury. “The repair shop inspects every single snowboard, ski and boot, and tests and sets ski bindings to the correct setting so we know that the employee is skiing at the correct DIN,” he says.
Peak Resorts as a whole is considering an additional step to make sure employee equipment remains in good shape throughout the season. “We have toyed with offering our on-snow staff three free tunes per season,” Lavoie says. The alternative, he says, is that “as the season progresses they don’t keep up with the waxing and sharpening, so the staff doesn’t have the right tune, and that can cause an injury.”
Another strategy is to proactively assess the skiing and riding ability of your staff. Starting with a baseline understanding of your staff’s ability levels is vital, says David Paradysz, Keystone Resort’s health and safety manager.
“All Keystone employees who ski or ride as a part of their job are required to participate in a ski and ride assessment prior to beginning work,” he says. “On-snow evaluations are conducted by professional trainers of the Keystone Ski & Ride School, and employees are assessed on their ability level to determine the type of terrain they are approved to ski or ride as a part of their job.”
The evaluations don’t just happen at the start of the season, says Paradysz. “These on-snow assessments are offered multiple times a week throughout the season, and employees can be reassessed as their ability level changes or they get on different equipment.” Like many resorts, Keystone offers its staff free lessons “to further their ski and ride skills,” he says.
Mount Snow, Vt., also assesses the skiing and riding ability of its on-snow staff. Once equipment is inspected and approved, a PSIA level III instructor conducts an on-snow test, and rates staff proficiency by green, blue, or black, which determines the level of terrain they are approved to ski as part of their jobs. Lift services manager Jason Perl says this is especially important for lift operators, because they ski or ride to their assignments.
“We have designated routes” to access lift postings, says Perl, adding that all lift operations staff must “sign in and sign out for their lunch break, bathroom breaks, or whenever they are not working.”
For a resort’s patrol and ski school staff, whose jobs entail skiing and riding, the situation is more complicated. Unlike lift operators, these individuals are spending the bulk of their time skiing or riding; sometimes in hazardous conditions and on terrain that’s more complex than the easier designated groomed routes lifties take.
At Keystone, Paradysz says departments like ski patrol and mountain safety participate in “on-the-clock” coaching or skier enhancement sessions, and the ski and ride school has an extensive coaching and clinics program for all its instructors.
The inherent risks of skiing and riding are magnified for staff that spend every day on snow, so identifying injury trends can help manage the risk. “With patrol it is at the end of the day,” says Howard. “They have accidents during sweep. It’s touchy because they are skiing around, looking around for people, and they can’t be just skiing.”
For Howard, seemingly innocuous moments like an injury during sweep actually lead to opportunities to improve employee wellness and safety. At Aspen, that starts with closing the communication loop across multiple departments. “We send out a weekly injury report with no names, but letting managers know, ‘here are the injuries, the descriptions,’” he says. “If we see trends, we can share them with employees. That’s a big deal.”
This education feedback loop has been crucial, says Howard, in reducing Aspen Skiing Company’s injury rate by half over the last seven to eight years. The company is now looking at ways to integrate employee wellness with safety. “We’ve lopped off all the low-hanging fruit and the easy solutions,” says Howard, who is now looking at safety from a total worker health perspective. He believes that employees’ overall wellbeing leads to fewer accidents.
Communication, education, ability testing, health, a positive work environment, even designated runs for lift ops—it’s all part of getting to know your overall employee ecosystem, creating safe work environments, and minimizing risk. But while tools such as employee orientation, ACL prevention classes, and creating injury datasets to spot trends can be effective tools, sometimes you just have to know your staff.
That is especially the case for terrain park employees, where on-snow time often involves testing features that require a high level of skill, and an assumed increased risk.
“In the interview process, nine times out of ten we know the rider, we’ve seen him or her on the hill,” says Ken Gaitor, director of slope operations at Snowshoe, W.Va. “These staff members are coming from other departments, so we have a sense of their riding ability.”
Despite being oftentimes familiar with the in-park ability of new park staff, Boyne Resorts VP of mountain sport development Jay Scambio says it’s also wise to have standards in place for building and testing features. “It’s driven through our park managers,” says Scambio of Boyne’s approach. “From qualifying riding to signing off on that person and his or her abilities to navigate small, medium, and large features, we filter it. We don’t want everyone testing stuff, and we are not going to tell everyone they are testing everything.”
Paradysz says Keystone takes a similar approach. “Keystone has a set of best practices that defines the skills and internal certifications required of employees before riding any terrain park feature. Terrain park employees may be certified to test small, medium, and large features, as well as specific features like jumps, jibs, boxes, and rails.”
But even with all possible precautions, accidents happen—from park and pipe and lift ops to snow safety staff. And the cause might not even be out on the mountain. Howard recalls an instance when “someone stepped up on a chair with rolling wheels instead of using a ladder,” with results that were not as the employee intended.
Howard’s response was simple: “Are you kidding me?”
Human error: That’s why training is a never-ending process.