November 2022

Safety First

A variety of employee-centric programs help resorts foster engagement with and commitment to safety best practices.

Written by April Darrow | 0 comment

A variety of effective and creative employee safety programs are in place at resorts across the country. Many of these programs focus on empowering employees to be part of the solution. The result of this involvement is increased morale and reduced risk among staff as well as guests. 

Know, too, that safety culture is highly contagious. “When safe work practices are part of the daily way of doing business, then team members support each other for safe work practices,” says Bob Piede, safety manager at Holiday Valley, N.Y. “And when guests see our safety initiatives, it gives them a sense of safety and comfort that this place cares.”

Here’s a look at several resorts’ programs across the U.S.  

HOLIDAY VALLEY: TWO KEY INITIATIVES

Holiday Valley is focused on building a strong safety culture among staff through employee health and wellness initiatives as well as a successful employee safety suggestion program. Piede has worked hard to rally employees around both. 

Employee input. In the safety suggestion program, employees are encouraged to submit their ideas, and participation is incentivized with rewards such as beverage coupons and gift cards. Incentives also include a weekly “winner” and a grand prize winner for the best suggestion—last year, a staffer earned a private airplane tour around the region. 

Safety suggestions are summarized into a small booklet—“Safety Suggestions from our Employees”—categorized for winter and summer operations, and then made available to staff and guests at frontline locations. In addition, ongoing safety stations are set up at different areas throughout the resort, with both guests and staff invited to participate. Those who do are rewarded with small but handy gifts including lip balm, first aid kits, logo golf balls, or carabiners.

Piede says many of the safety suggestions have been implemented, and in some cases financially supported in the resort’s yearly capital budget.

Health and wellness programs. Holiday Valley’s health and wealth wellness initiatives focus on preventive health and include information on healthy living, eating, and exercise. The key tools: a biweekly employee newsletter, a farmer’s market offering low-priced local produce during the summer, health and wellness checks for winter staff prior to the season, and a healthcare insurance program that includes financial incentives for healthy living and preventive care. All build buy-in and boost morale.

“We have an engaged workforce that takes pride in what they do, and our management staff takes the time to express gratitude to our employees,” says Piede. “If an employee is engaged in their work, they are less likely to take shortcuts that may lead to an accident. We provide the necessary tools and education to allow our employees to do their jobs in a safe manner.”  

VAIL RESORTS: EVOLVING ATTITUDES

Attitudes toward employee safety have evolved over the years. “I think that employee safety around resorts has changed in that it’s less ‘pull up by the bootstraps and get it done no matter what,’” says Kip McCarthy, director of health and safety for Vail Resorts, Western Region. “Safety is now a value, not something to check off and move on. Safety is now core of what we do, and it drives our success.”

Focus on Today program. At Vail Resorts-owned Breckenridge, Colo., the employee-centric “Focus on Today” program garnered a 2022 NSAA Employee Safety Program Award. The program calls on resort employees within each department to identify one item each day that can have a meaningful impact on their team’s overall safety. For example, operations staff may call out icy walkways on a particularly cold morning, or ski patrol may focus on avalanche conditions and create safety measures accordingly. 

“The idea essentially involves team members asking, ‘what is different today’ and how will [recognizing] that help you complete your tasks for that day,” says McCarthy.

Line employees in each department work with their supervisors during early morning briefs to decide on their day’s focus. It’s then shared with other resort departments to make them aware.

As is true for other initiatives reviewed here, the program empowers employees by allowing them to become part of the solution, McCarthy says. By helping to identify a daily action item they can shift, adjust, or simply bring greater awareness to in order to provide a safer environment for their team and area of operations, employees become accountable. 

Incentives (a common theme). Healthy competition always drives more adoption, says McCarthy. To create incentive, the resort invests in awards and prizes around participation. “There’s that cultural piece of buy-in from employees because they were included in helping determine the daily focus, and also because they’re being rewarded and recognized,” he says. 

Examples set expectations. Breckenridge has found success in setting clear expectations around safety procedures and protocols, as well as explaining why they are in place. “All humans will base their behaviors off what they see as examples,” says McCarthy. “Once we have a top safety culture in place, from top management to employees, the appropriate expectations can be set for someone on how to act. Even for new people, they can see expectations about safety and they can do things the right way.”

Focus on Today has resulted in a 35 percent reduction in employee injuries in two years. Perhaps more importantly, it reinforces to all employees that Breckenridge considers safety a top core value.

“We’ve created a culture of ownership and accountability,” says Breckenridge VP and COO Jody Churich. “It’s so important for resort leaders to form a strong bond with [department managers] when it comes to safety. We’re all in it together.”  

SNOWBASIN: SAFER APPROACH

Snowbasin’s SAFERmtn program targets a different theme around mountain safety each season, combining guest and employee safety under one initiative. Last year’s focus was Your Responsibility Code. 

Kaitlyn Schwalbe, senior manager of guest services, worked alongside Snowbasin’s risk manager, Shelley Ekman, so the same initiatives were going on internally (staff) and externally (guests).

The guest-facing initiative was spearheaded by the resort’s two-year-old Mountain Safety Team, which monitored family skiing zones and educated visitors about the responsibility code. 

The Safety Team recorded every guest engagement—more than 1,000 total—with the idea that all interactions, from thank-yous to complaints, could be a chance to educate guests about safety.

Connecting with employees. Behind the scenes, the resort made sure that each and every employee was familiar with the tenets of the responsibility code as well, incorporating it into daily employee communications all season, starting with orientation. “Every employee got to be part of the conversation,” says Schwalbe. 

To promote the theme, employees received lanyards and pins with the SAFERmtn message. Weekly health and safety newsletters distributed to the entire resort staff offered tips, tricks, and items to be mindful of, and also incorporated an aspect of the responsibility code. The involvement helped employees understand their role in resort safety and feel connected to the big picture.

“Employees are our internal guests, and holding them to the same expectations as guests on the mountain is paramount,” says Schwalbe. “Safety for employees is beyond equal value. Employee safety is an expectation. It’s a red thread. It has to be integrated into a ski resort if we want to keep our guests safe.”  

GORE MOUNTAIN: ANALYTICS AND EMPOWERMENT

Mark Roberts, an 18-year veteran of Gore Mountain, N.Y., transitioned into his current role as health and safety supervisor after working closely with Cindy Dady, risk manager for the resort’s overseer, the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), during the Covid pandemic to develop processes to protect employees and guests. Roberts now leads a robust safety and education program at the resort, with a focus on employee training and communication.

“Our employees are our greatest asset, and we need to ensure every one of our staff makes it home at the end of every day,” says Roberts.

ORDA uses predictive analytics to look at high-frequency incidents and focus on how to reduce them. In a weekly safety message, managers share what happened, why, and how they can mitigate the probability of a similar incident occurring. Roberts says this is done as an organization, so all ORDA venues—Gore, Whiteface, and Belleayre, among others—learn from one another. 

Looking for solutions. “We have empowered our staff to look for solutions and share what works with the other venues,” says Roberts. “We also include in our weekly safety message a safety topic, which is usually seasonally based.” Examples include tips for walking on slippery surfaces during the winter or staying hydrated in the summer.

Employee training is a never-ending process, notes Roberts. He says Gore has specific training topics to cover per state guidelines, and others per mountain policies and procedures. “We accomplish most of this through annual training and retraining when necessary,” he says. 

Through these practices, the resort has been able to reduce both guest and staff incidents. 

The solutions can often be incredibly simple—for example, identifying slips and falls as a leading cause of staff injury, and then providing staff with slip-prevention footwear.

“Most of all, we listen to our staff and ask for their feedback,” Roberts adds.

Committee meetings. Gore has a safety committee meeting monthly in the summer and twice a month during winter to discuss employee incidents and how to reduce them, to talk about solutions for any safety issues that arise, and to encourage all employees to be part of the solution.

Don’t underestimate the importance of empowering employees to come up with solutions, says Roberts. 

“Promoting culture and buy-in are created by listening to your staff, understanding their needs, and giving them a voice,” he says. “Remember, it’s not just culture—we are also changing behaviors. And changing behaviors for safety is a top-down and bottom-up process.”