In an industry wishing to grow its participation, paying keen attention to our youngest participants is vital. It’s our job to help ensure a positive experience, while making safety a priority. This is especially true for lift operations.
Start with the issue of responsibility. While ANSI B77 x.3.3.2 says, “All passengers who use an aerial lift shall be responsible for their own embarkation, riding, and disembarkation,” it is also the attendant/operator’s duty to be “observing, monitoring, and assisting them,” according to section x.126.96.36.199.
So where does the responsibility lay? Is it safe to assume that all passengers have the ability and dexterity to use lifts safely? Is it possible to assist too much? Or perhaps we aren’t doing enough?
First, it’s important to understand what makes children different from other passengers. Let’s start with the obvious: size. Children are smaller, plain and simple. Chairlifts are designed to accommodate a wide spectrum of passengers, but not everyone is a perfect fit. Riders must adapt to the equipment and are responsible for knowing “how to ride.” That’s easier for some than others. Most adults can sit comfortably on a chairlift without making major movements to load or unload. However, young children may have to do a little hop or require physical assistance to accomplish the same.
While most adults are able to comfortably sit with their back against the backrest, thanks to their longer femur (you know, the big bone in your upper leg), children have shorter legs and will only go back until the bend in their knee is on the front of the chair, putting them precariously closer to the edge than adults. In addition, their shorter arms make it difficult to use the restraint bar.
Before even approaching a lift, potential riders need to be educated. Required chairlift instructional and warning signage should be placed appropriately, and maintained in a manner to provide passengers the opportunity to read, understand, and ask questions.
It is also worth noting that people learn in different ways, and children learn different than adults. Remember elementary school? Did you actually learn how to use Legos by reading the instructions? Probably not.
Successful educational programs are layered, and presented in a variety of ways to suit different audiences while improving retention of information. Just like looking both ways before crossing the street, we want passengers to develop good habits when it comes to using lifts. In a litigious world, it is in the resort’s best interest to implement reasonable practices in a consistent manner to help reduce the risk of injury (and lawsuits).
Lift safety campaigns may entail various media or activities geared toward children and their parents, such as a coloring book with lift safety themes or, one of my favorites, the “when in doubt, push them out” video, which instructs people to act quickly in the event of a misload and get a hanger to the ground before the chair is too high. While nobody wants to drop a child, the reality is a fall from two feet is better than a fall from 20 feet, regardless of age, weight, or height.
There is also opportunity for additional signage. Some resorts use catchy sayings like “bottom to bottom, back to back,” an easy-to-remember reminder for kids to sit on the chair and have their back on the backrest. Others even put a bull’s-eye or some other image on the seat to mark the proper spot they should sit.
There are also mechanical systems that can be installed on chairs to help prevent kids from falling. One uses magnetic vests and seatbacks, which engage and disengage at the terminal, keeping kids “locked” in place during the ride. Another, less expensive option includes an addition to the restraint bar that helps prevent a child from slipping under. All of these are proactive attempts to decrease risk and improve awareness.
As with all good systems, layers of protection improve results.
The anatomical differences between kids and adults play a key role in kids’ safety while using a chairlift. Plus, kids may not entirely understand the inherent risks of riding aerial transport. They also lack the life experience and critical thinking skills to make important decisions that may affect safety. So who’s responsible for bridging the gap?
In my opinion, this requires a collective effort among parents, instructors, attendants, and even the general public.
First, we should recognize how rare it is for parents to let their kids roam freely. Most parents hold their child’s hand when riding an escalator, and generally don’t allow their children to play near traffic. Yet many trust their kids to travel the mountain and ride lifts with minimal supervision (note to parents: lift attendants aren’t babysitters). We can ask parents to assume some responsibility for teaching lift safety.
Ski school is a great opportunity to educate newcomers, especially children. “Our goal is to not only make sure that kids are using the bar every single time they ride a lift, but also make sure that they understand how to properly lower and raise the bar when riding the lift on their own without our instructors,” says Mount Snow skiing and riding services manager Brian Donovan.
Several resorts have a “practice chair,” which is connected to a base that can be pushed/slid across the snow to simulate the motion of a chair coming through the loading area, allowing beginners—especially children—to get a feel for proper loading technique prior to attempting the real deal. A practice chair can be inexpensive, and pays dividends as an educational tool incorporated into a beginner lesson.
Instructors should also discuss lift safety prior to and during every lift ride. Again, redundancy is key to forging good habits. Instructors can take the time with students to watch others load and unload the lift and describe the “critical criteria” to successfully ride these machines.
When there are more kids in class than can ride with the instructor, resorts follow various policies. At Mount Snow, instructors often request that an adult guest in the singles line ride with some of the kids. If nothing else, this ensures there is one person on the chair with life experience, and hopefully a sense of responsibility for the safety of others. An adult can also help with the restraint bar, minimize horseplay, and assist in the event of an evacuation.
It’s worth noting that ALL employees riding lifts, not just instructors, should serve as role models and be encouraged to interact with children (and other passengers) on their chair to promote safety.
THE LIFT ATTENDANT’S DUTY
ANSI B77 states that it’s the lift attendant’s duty to observe, monitor, and assist chairlift passengers. What actions fall under “assist?”
That varies by resort. Some have the lift attendant lower the restraint bar on chairs with children, some have the attendant go behind the chair to help pull children against the backrest, and others require the lift to be slowed while children load and/or unload. All are worth considering, but be aware of the potential consequences of setting guest expectations in this way. You might be cited as a contributing factor to an incident or injury if attendants don’t perform the expected duty, or don’t perform it properly.
In one incident, an attendant lowering the restraint bar accidentally pinched a child’s hand. While the injury was minor, the parents expected the resort to cover the associated medical costs because in performing a duty—albeit to help—the attendant actually caused the injury.
Likewise, if a resort’s policy is to slow the lift for children at load or unload, and an incident occurs the one time the operator doesn’t slow it down, the resort’s liability could actually be more substantial than if that policy didn’t exist. Without this policy, it could be said that the passenger had the responsibility to request the lift be slowed.
Despite best intentions, providing physical assistance may backfire. Plus, adding another responsibility to a lift attendant’s plate may cause a distraction from other passengers. Weigh the risk/reward before implementing such duties.
Of course, staffing is another area to consider. Resorts have found success by having additional staff at beginner lifts, to serve as another set of eyes, answer questions, and provide coaching or assistance as needed.
Whatever your chosen policy is, it should be clearly communicated to staff and must be executed consistently so passengers are also aware of what they can and should expect.
The quest to help kids ride lifts safely requires a delicate balance of responsibility between the passenger(s), parents, attendants, and the resort. Every lift has its unique challenges to consider. There isn’t a “one size fits all” solution—kind of like chairlifts themselves.
However, resorts should consider all of these factors and build an educational program that improves the safety of children on lifts. When dealing with children especially, emotions inevitably come into play. Chairlifts have no feelings, so it’s up to us to make the right call and do what’s best. At the end of the day, we want all of our guests to have a great experience and enjoy riding our chairlifts safely.