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Thousands Of Injuries At Colorado Ski Resorts Go Untracked. Lawmakers Are Trying To Change That

Stephanie Daniel

A bill before lawmakers this week would require Colorado ski resorts to publicly report injury and fatality statistics, a measure that’s being met with strong resistance from the ski industry and its backers. Proponents say such a law would force resorts to be more accountable for safety problems.

“The bill is a fairly straightforward approach to try and find out where there are problem areas that are causing significant safety concerns,” said Jessie Danielson, D-Jefferson County, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Senate Bill 184, titled “Ski Area Safety Plans and Accident Reporting,” is slated for a hearing on Thursday. Under it, resorts would also be required to publish safety plans that indicate what they are doing to reduce injuries and fatalities.

“It's a public health issue,” Danielson said. “It's an accountability issue and consumers deserve to have this kind of information.”

A major trade group for the state’s ski industry -- Colorado Ski Country USA -- is opposing the legislation. So is the Denver Metro Area Chamber of Commerce on the grounds that the bill could create a sense that Colorado is less safe than other states that don’t require their resorts to report on injuries and fatalities.

“To separate us and require reporting, we think would create this perception that Colorado is uniquely different from other ski areas in terms of risk or accidents,” said Kelly Brough, the chamber’s president and CEO. “That's the part that really causes us great concern.”

Brough also noted that a major trade group, the Lakewood-based National Ski Areas Association, tracks deaths and major, life-changing injuries.

“They track it throughout the nation for all,” she said. “So there's a real consistency in reporting.”

In the 2019 to 2020 ski season, the NSAA reported 42 fatalities at resorts across the country as well as 29 catastrophic events, which include head and spinal injuries that result in full or partial paralysis and/or the loss of a limb.

The data does not include a state- or resort-specific breakdown. The association’s focus on catastrophic injuries stands in contrast with little-known hospital ski injury data KUNC uncovered in a 2019 investigation. It found that in 2017, the most recent information available at the time, there were more than 5,600 skier and snowboarder emergency room visits in Colorado. Most of those involved falls and collisions.

But that data could not link the incidents to specific resorts. Only one database does that. Kept by the state Passenger Tramway Safety Board, which regulates chairlifts, it links a slice of all ski-related injuries to Colorado’s resorts. KUNC obtained that data through a Colorado Open Records Act request, finding that in a roughly five-year period ending 2018, 74 people were injured when they fell or slipped from ski lifts. In a majority of those cases at resorts around the state, resort workers concluded that “skier error” was the cause, even in the cases of children, including a 3-year-old who slipped through the back of a chair.

Danielson said people shouldn’t have to file open records requests to track incidents at resorts.

“We have to acknowledge that there are injuries, there are deaths, and there's very little that the public knows about any of this in Colorado ski resorts,” Danielson said.

Under a state law called the Colorado Ski Safety Act, skiers assume most of the risks of going to the slopes. They are defined as inherently dangerous because of snow and ice, terrain conditions, and even a resort’s infrastructure. Dan Gregorie, a retired physician with the national SnowSport Safety Foundation, based in California, said the bill would give consumers detailed, resort-level information about any significant hazards.

“There are inherent risks to skiing, but (resorts) have managed to pervade the perception that because something is inherent, it's not preventable,” Gregorie said.

His group, working with others, like Safe Slopes Colorado, have taken deep dives into data and safety at resorts, finding thousands of emergency room trips every year. By one measure, about 55 skiers and snowboarders arrive in emergency rooms every day.

“This (bill) would make Colorado first in the country in terms of safety information, without question,” Gregorie said. “No other state is doing anything like this.”

Gregorie knows that first-hand. He fought for similar legislation in California about a decade ago only to see the efforts defeated by two governors’ vetoes.

In 2019, his group and others, including the Boulder-based Parents for Safe Skiing, as well as representatives from the ski industry, participated in the state's Ski Lift Safety Working Group. The group’s work fizzled after several months, with some participants who had hoped for change voicing frustrations and saying the group lacked focus and a mandate.

Updated: April 15, 2021 at 7:30 PM MDT
On Thursday, Colorado's Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee killed the bill, which was strongly opposed by the ski resort industry. A long list of health experts and families had testified that the bill would force resorts to provide facts to consumers when they ski and snowboard.

Lawmakers supporting the measure said people shouldn't have to fight resorts for information about incidents and conditions. Representatives of the ski industry said the data requirements would require too much administration to comply with and could move workers away from other safety work. The bill failed in a 4-1 vote.
As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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