9/28/17: An earlier online version of this article contained, by mistake, only the first portion of the original article. The following has been updated to include the full text of the original piece.
Over the 2016 Christmas holiday, a Texas tourist named Kelly Huber fell from a chairlift at Ski Granby Resort with her two daughters and was killed. Her daughters were injured but survived the fall, which was caused by an electrical problem in the control drive system on the Quickdraw Express lift. Post-accident reports conducted by the Colorado Passenger and Tramway Safety Board (CPTSB) noted that the high-speed chairlift had been somehow modified earlier in the season, and may not have gone through proper inspection prior to operation.
Over the past ten seasons, 227 chairlift falls were reported to the CPTSB. Most of these falls do not result in fatalities, but are still categorized as “accidents”, causing lifts to shut down and a mountain of paperwork to be filed. And it’s not just chairlift accidents that Colorado resorts have dealt with in recent months. As of March, there were nine ski-related deaths at resorts across the state, with four of those deaths occurring at a Vail-operated Resort.
As of April 1st, the death toll jumped up to twelve, putting the 2016-17 ski season in Colorado deadlier than any other season in the past three years. While these accidents were not all chairlift related, the high numbers speak to Colorado resort’s stance on safety standards—both chairlift standards and user safety standards. Both Vail Resorts Company and a representative from Ski Granby declined to comment on questions regarding chairlift safety standards at their resorts.
Because Colorado is the state with the highest volume of ski tourists, the regulatory agency that manages lift operation and inspections is fairly rigorous compared to other states. In fact, most other states do not even have regulatory agencies specific to monitoring chairlifts and tramways. In California, there is a non-profit called the Snow Sport Safety Foundation, which publishes basic safety guidelines and statistics on skier safety. In Vermont and Maine, both state’s Departments of Labor have a division that monitors construction guidelines and repairs, but nothing extensive. Because of its high volume of skiers—and therefore high volume of chairlifts and gondolas—Colorado must ensure there is a separate agency dedicated to tramway safety codes and standards. The CPTSB is the agency that monitors everything from the design and construction of chairlifts to safety guidelines for operational personnel.
However safe chairlifts might seem, this event in Ski Granby marks the seventh death since 1973 in Colorado alone caused from mechanical issues on chairlifts. The only other deaths in this time period occurred in California (four deaths in 1978) and New York (one death in 1973). Recent ski safety documents published by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) at the end of last year notes that a higher ratio of accidents and deaths occur in Colorado more than any other state (and within Colorado, six of the seven deaths mentioned above occurred at Vail Resort locations).
While these numbers might seem high, it is important to keep in mind the ratio of accidents to number of skiers that visit Colorado versus other states. According to the NSAA, Colorado accounts for over a fifth of ski tourists to the US, with a number of twelve million skier days per year, more than any other state. (A skier day refers to one person buying one lift ticket.) To put in it perspective, California accounts for six million skier days, Vermont accounts for five million skier days, Maine, New Hampshire, and Connecticut account for about two million skier days each, and Montana one million skier days. Still, Colorado has had unfortunate luck recently of having multiple chairlift-related deaths and accidents, which begs the question: are Colorado chairlifts up to their own standards, and are they up to par compared to other states?
The concept of chairlifts has not changed very much in the past 50 years. The engineering behind cable systems is relatively old, making chairlift accidents rare in the larger scheme of things. Dave Byrd, Director of Risk and Regulatory Affairs for the NSAA, commented, “A passenger is five times more likely to be killed riding an elevator than a ski lift, and eight times more likely to be killed riding in a car than on a ski lift.” So maybe chairlift and gondola accidents are just statistically rare, or maybe because the CPTSB sets rigorous standards.
The Colorado Passenger and Tramway Safety Board not only hires engineers to determine if a chairlift is ready for operation, but they also assess if any repairs are needed, and when either major or minor adjustments should be made. The CPTSB publishes copies of the standards they have issued over the years online, so they can be accessible to both ski resorts and the public. In 1960, the CPTSB published their first safety code. In 1965, the American National Standards Institute’s amendments were adopted into the safety codes set in place by the CPTSB. Since 1965, the passenger safety codes and aerial safety requirements have been amended or rewritten every three or five years, up until the winter season in 2010. Since then, none of CPTSB’s safety codes have been updated.
Jim Fletcher, a professional engineer who specializes in aerial cable systems, was able to provide more in-detail information on operational codes and standards. “All chairlifts and gondolas on federal lands defer to the state for laws regarding the inspections,” Fletcher explained, “There are two inspections per year done by state-hired inspectors: one pre-operation in the fall, and one unannounced inspection, both conducted by engineers.“ Engineers like Fletcher are unbiased, as they are not employed by either the resorts or the state; they act as private contractors. Fletcher also spoke about what sort of maintenance problems cause these accidents. “I’ve been in the ski business since 1978, and I can tell you these things are rare. Because there is such a small number of these incidents, it’s hard to extrapolate, but most of [these incidents] were rollbacks,” he explained, “Rollback means a chairlift rolling backwards in uncontrollable fashion, and often occurs because of people loading and unloading.”
While rollbacks seem to be the most likely, there are plenty of other things that can go wrong on a chairlift if mechanical inspections are not done thoroughly. “You also have incidents where you’ve had deropements when the chairlift is swinging,” Fletcher continued, “Deropement refers to the cable coming off the support systems, wheels or rollers, resulting in swinging or dropping.” Fletcher noted that while both of these mechanical issues have occurred in the past, it is even more unlikely nowadays with the changes in equipment. “The biggest change from an equipment standpoint is the high-speed, detachable chairlifts.” For anyone who has skied at any Colorado resort within the past two years, you’ve probably seen these chairlifts around, and not even noticed. Detachable means the individual chair detaches from the cable and is guided on a rail system until it is reconnected with the cable. “This is so people can load and unload with more ease,” Fletcher explained.
The Colorado Ski Safety Act made effective in 2006 addresses concerns of safety and liability, and one of the controversial safety topics is that of safety bars. If someone is not properly loading or unloading (for example, not lifting the bar in time, or lifting the bar too soon), they can be held liable for any injuries. The NSAA included in their safety study that, “[it] is more likely for the causes of the falls to be human error or operator error rather than a mechanical problem.”
Fletcher agreed with the NSAA’s study, stating, “the safety bar does not make chairlifts any more safe than chairlifts without the safety bar; there have been numerous accidents involved in loading and unloading where people have gotten injured because of the safety bar.” The NSAA safety study also included a pie chart that showed that 71 percent of all falls from lifts in Colorado occurred on chairlifts that had a restraint bar. So are these restraint bars adding to the problem, or are they preventing even more “human error” caused accidents from occurring?
Comparing Colorado to other ski destinations, Colorado seems like the odd state out. All seven New England states required safety bars on all lifts while Colorado does not. However, out of the seven New England states (Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York), only one state requires that passengers actually use the safety bar when riding lifts. Historically, it varies by state whether it is required to have safety bars, and it differs between the east and west coast.
“The east coast states have required them for a long time, 30 or 40 years, while in western states like Colorado or Utah it’s not required,” Fletcher informed me, “I, along with others, have studied the efficacy of using these devices given the current designs, and we have found there is the probability of having just as many incidents. If you have [safety bars], these incidents happen more often on unloading.” However, Colorado’s rigorous safety standards are changing as we speak; the CPTSB believes these restraint bars do protect people more often than cause problems, so Colorado is finally following suit behind the eastern states. “That’s a fairly new standard: all new chairlifts will be required to have safety bars, and all the old ones get retrofitted. In five to ten years, there won’t be any lifts in the state without bars,” Fletcher said.
The invention of safety bars was certainly a relief for the ski resort industry, as it is much harder for resorts to be liable for a fall if a safety bar was not being used. And while safety bars may seem important, what’s an even more important change to these lift systems was to the brakes. There are three types of friction-type brakes used in aerial cable systems (the same brakes that are used for gondolas are used for chairlifts): system brakes, service brakes, and drive sheave brakes.
“No manual brake system exists anymore,” Fletcher explained. “The brakes are initiated by an operator pushing a button, so only one brake needs to be initiated on at least one side.” This means that a lift operator who stops the lift at the bottom doesn’t also need for the lift operator at the top to manually stop his set of brakes as well; the whole system operates on one electric grid. “But just because the brake is initiated by particular switches doesn’t mean the lift can’t roll back,” Fletcher noted.
If a normal brake stop doesn’t stop the lift for a mechanical reason, the emergency shutdown brake (a separate de-energized circuit) will take the lift off the electric grid, ensuring its ability to stop. The emergency shutdown circuit is used both when a lift cannot stop, and also when a lift is unable to slow down or if it accelerates or self-accelerates. Fletcher continued, “Chairlifts now operate on hydraulics. Many brakes deploy automatically when the chairlift senses something is incorrect. That’s why accidents are so rare.” If the engineering breakthrough of automatic brake systems had never been applied to aerial systems, there could have been a lot more accidents.
Given the recent surge of accidents that have occurred at Colorado ski resorts, its safe to say that chairlifts aren’t as safe as they could be. The Colorado Passenger and Tramway Safety Board should update their safety standards more often and make sure these state standards align with the American National Standard. Resorts should also be required to have more than one annual inspection of the chairlifts, and have additional safety training for operational personnel to address precautions that might be taken to prevent “human error” cause incidents.
These measures will be worth investing in to prevent more accidents from occurring in the future, and to ensure the public is well-informed on all updated safety standards—whether it’s a change in counterweight and tension system designs, aerial braking systems, or the addition of a simple safety feature. And while we can encourage the Safety Board to do as much as possible to keep their standards up to date, most of the preventative measures should fall within the responsibility of the skiers themselves.