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November 2018

Thinking About Safety

What does it take to hold risks to a minimum, for both guests and employees?

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In March 1978, Squaw Valley was rocked by a violent storm. Driving rain and wind gusts of 150-200 mph battered the resort. Many staff had already gone home. But John Rice, an intern at the time, hunkered down.

“I was on dispatch that day,” he recalls, “and heard loud noises and realized the windows were breaking around me. The infrastructure of the cable car was falling apart. The counterweight hit full speed to the ground and made a sound I will never forget.”

The Squaw Valley tram had been sheared in two by the cable that carries the cars up and down the mountain. People fell. Others were pinned by the cable. Still others were trapped 800 feet in the air in the second tram. Rice spent the next 15 hours coordinating the response effort through dispatch and assisting with the rescue.

This incident was the moment Rice truly understood the high-risk nature of the industry. “I realized we are not at Disneyland anymore,” he says. “And I was forced by that incident to realize the seriousness of what can happen in a ski area.”

Rice points out that risk management was still a fledgling discipline in the late ’70s. These days, he says, we know how to better evaluate risk, prevent losses, and protect resort guests, employees, and assets. But the internet still perpetuates a host of recent videos of chairs derailing, lifts malfunctioning, and other seemingly avoidable ski area accidents.

So, how do we, ski area personnel of all levels in all departments, continue to develop and refine good risk management practices?

As part of the SAM Summit Series leadership program, Paul Thallner of High Peaks Group led a discussion with John Rice, now the general manager of Sierra-at-Tahoe in California, and Kris Blomback, the general manager of Pats Peak in New Hampshire, about their hard-won risk management wisdom, and the best ways to create a safety-conscious culture at your resort. We excerpt the discussion here; the full interview is at

THALLNER: How much of your brain space is occupied by thinking about risk?

RICE: I’m one of those guys, when I go out, I look at where is the emergency access, where is the fire extinguisher, was it charged, do these guys have a plan, what am I going to do—to a fault.

I am probably spending 80 percent of my brainpower focused on risk. When it comes to things that can go wrong, I am always looking at what’s the plan, what’s the communication, who’s aware.

BLOMBACK: Every day I walk around our facility and I think, “How can our business plan be defeated?” I am always trying to work collaboratively with our team members and try to figure out what’s plan A, what’s plan B, C, and D.

It is a lot like driving a car. You’re looking out on the horizon, you’re looking down the highway four or five miles, and you’re occasionally glancing at your instruments to make sure that your machine and your team are running fine.

THALLNER: Let’s talk about risk management as an idea. What other facets to this concept are there that matter?

RICE: A ski area is really 100 small businesses jammed into one. Lift operations, grooming, terrain parks, day care, lessons, rentals—as you start looking across the resort, these small businesses that make up your resort are all operating in an ever-changing environment.

From a loss-prevention perspective, we’re going to do all we can in terms of systems and awareness and turn every person into a risk manager. Instead of one person who works five days a week walking around with a hard hat and a clipboard, I’ve got 800 people looking out for where there might be exposures, whether it’s a single guest or a piece of equipment making a funny sound.

We are quick to recognize and reward people for not having losses or for making saves, quick action, quick thoughts, that took a bad situation and turned it around. Once you engage people, they can then become part of that preventative process.

BLOMBACK: When we see an event out on the industry landscape that we think could affect us, we deconstruct what the ski area did, and we break it down and tailor it to our operation and add it to the big red book [our crisis communication guide]. You’ve got to always be thinking about different things that can go wrong with your projects.

It’s important to give yourself options. We always like to develop options. For example, if we are rebuilding ski lifts or rebuilding gearboxes, we like to keep two or three different gearbox companies in the fold. It gives us the flexibility to develop plans A, B, and C. The more options you have going forward if something goes off track, the better.

THALLNER: Is there anything in particular that you do among your senior management team to help them tune in and think with a risk management lens?

RICE: Accidents really are preventable, and culturally we have to stand behind that. That’s so foreign to the way that many of us are raised in this business; we’re tough guys and stuff happens. The culture shift really has to start with individuals, and they have to see that link [from good safety practices] to the success of the organization.

On the downside you can see the link: if X happens, it’s going to cost us Y. And you can add that to their budget so they can see that. But I prefer to use motivational methods. At Sierra, if we all make it to Thanksgiving without a time loss, everyone who is working gets a turkey. If we make it to Christmas, then they all get a bottle of wine and a Christmas ornament.

Our record here at Sierra is four years without a lost-time injury—that’s 2.5 million man-hours without someone missing a day of work due to an accident. Some people think that’s unrealistic, but it is achievable when you get the entire company behind it. It’s not one person alone. The risk manager can take the credit, but around here you often see folks walking around with hats or sweatshirts with an “NLT” inscription, which means No Lost Time.

BLOMBACK: It takes a long time to change a company culture, and when I say a long time, I mean years.

When I got into the business 25-30 years ago, it was kind of like the wild, wild West. The immediate leaders above you expected you to get the job done at all costs. As we’ve evolved as an industry and an organization, we’ve established a breed of safety culture at our company. You have to keep working at it almost on a daily basis to ensure that culture permeates.

We have a policy at Pats that if our work mod rate [the rate through which workers’ comp is calculated] is under 1.0, then we share the resulting savings with our employees. That can be as little as no dollars if we are average, or as much as $500 if we get to a .80 work mod rate. We return that back to our employees if they show good habits.

BRANDON SCHWARTZ, HEAVENLY [SUMMIT SERIES MENTEE]: How do you deal with the double-edged sword of having a culture of zero incidents, but also have a strong culture of reporting near misses and incidents as they happen?

RICE: We track non-reportable incidents, which is an important piece, because we learn from those and from near misses as well when that conversation happens.

Directly to the question, a department that reports an incident or near miss is not in trouble. In fact, they are rewarded for having the guts to come forward and saying, “This is a problem we need to address,” and opening it up for thoughts on how we might do that.

It’s a no-fault deal. It’s OK to fail, we just fail fast and move on.

BLOMBACK: I’ll echo John’s comments there. We don’t penalize for reporting. We try and get out and be proactive in managing our accounts. When an employee gets injured and then is cleared to return to work, we have an aggressive return to work program, and we are always communicating with our insurance carrier that we believe a case has been closed out and they can take it off our books.

How to Build a Culture of Safety

Advice from Rice and Blomback for how to foster a safety-conscious culture at your resort:

• “Trust your people,” says Blomback. Empower front-line staff to make decisions and take action on the spot.
• Talk safety at orientation, says Rice. Establish the high-risk nature of the industry and a safety-conscious culture at the start of the season.
• Hold monthly safety meetings, advises Blomback. Reinforce a culture of safety awareness.
• Promote the three S’s—Service, Safety, and Sales—in weekly meetings, says Rice. Develop your talking points from concerns raised the previous week.
• As a GM, review every potential injury in the OSHA log, recommends Blomback. Discuss each incident with the employee involved and his or her direct supervisor.
• For special events, create a pre-event safety checklist to prevent potential safety oversights and make safety standards clear to staff and third party players, says Rice.
• Create a “crisis communication guide,” suggests Blomback. Outline potential scenarios and responses so you’ll never be unprepared.
• Don’t punish staff for reporting incidents or near misses, Rice and Blomback advise. And reward employees who demonstrate good habits!