7-year-old John Henderson fell an estimated 60 feet from a chairlift at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort on December 18th, 2011. The Davis resident died two days later at a local hospital.
When asked if policy will change in wake of the fatal accident, John Monson, a spokesperson at Sugar Bowl resort, said “Well, we really aren’t changing practices and procedures because safety is always of utmost importance. “
Monson says an internal investigation along with a state-led inspection of the lift revealed no malfunction.
“I think we had done everything possible as far as you know our diligence to safety. As far as operators and the chair lift itself passed code”, he said.
Child Death Raises Chairlift Safety Concerns
But Dick Penniman with the Snow Sport Safety Foundation says codes need to be updated. Penniman’s non-profit looks at safety standards at California Ski Areas.
In California, resorts by law don’t have to install safety bars on all lifts. According to Penniman's report, fewer than half of the chairlifts statewide are equipped with safety bars. There is a bar on the lift that John Henderson fell from but it’s still unclear if it was up or down.
In contrast, New York and Vermont require safety bars on all chair lifts.
Other resorts have taken extra safety precautions by installing magnets for ski lifts that hold children to the seat. In Colorado, the State Tramway Board forces ski areas to report all injury falls from a chair lift for any reason. From the data they collected, NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit learned since 2001, at least forty percent of those who fall from lifts are children.
California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration or CAL OSHA is the agency that inspects the lifts statewide. Spokesperson Dean Fryer says CAL OSHA just makes sure the lifts are up to code, they don’t set the standards.
“The resorts need to work with their manufacturer. How do you make that modification to safe guard a smaller frame size person or a larger frame person instead of just a standard size person, ” said Fryer.
But Dave Byrd from the National Ski Areas Association says that’s not possible. “You have different ski lifts, at different heights, at different locations and different types of terrain serving different parts of the mountain”.
Instead, Monson says it’s the responsibility of the skier or snowboarder, no matter the age, to be safe on the mountain. “We do our job here at the resorts to make sure all lifts are running smoothly and well maintained and operationally up to code. And it’s just a nice reminder to say hey slow down it’s all about fun but make sure you are safe when you are doing”.
Most ski laws that have been passed in other states require skiers to acknowledge the "inherent risk of skiing", while also requiring ski resorts to reduce the inherent risks. In the last decade, at least four ski lift laws have been introduced. All that made it to the Governor’s desk were vetoed.
In 2010, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed AB 1652 which would have required ski resorts to create an annual safety plan and make information about fatal accidents available to the public. The bill was sponsored by California Ski and Snowboard Safety and lobbied against by the California Ski Industry Association. SB 278 was a similar bill that passed in 2011, but was again vetoed, this time by Governor Brown. Both Govenors cited the bills were "unnecessary " in their veto messages.
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