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Some Colorado lawmakers want ski resorts to report injuries and fatalities

Following health department statistics showing as many as 55 skiers a day are treated in emergency rooms, Senate Bill 184 would require resorts to publish safety plans and injury statistics

Injured after a fall at Crested Butte ski resort, Laine Walter of Charlotte, North Carolina, gets taken to the base area by ski patrollers on Friday, December 18, 2020. (Dean Krakel Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Etthan Mañon was ready to tackle the main run at Echo Mountain after skiing several laps on the beginner hill. 

The 18-year-old was with a bunch of family, in town from the Dominican Republic for the Christmas holidays and skiing for the first time in his life. 

“He was doing great. Controlled turns and stopping. He was eager to try the main hill. I didn’t know how dangerous it was,” said his uncle, Scott Streeb, a longtime Colorado skier who said he brought his nephew and other family members to Echo — the closest resort to Denver, just a few miles above Evergreen — “thinking it was a good place for beginners.” 

“I didn’t know,” Streeb said.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Mañon struggled to stop on the run. He smashed through fencing at the bottom of the run and flew into dense trees. It took more than 45 minutes for ski patrollers to extricate him from the forest. In an ambulance at the base of the 60-acre ski area, paramedics treated Mañon for a badly injured arm. More than an hour after the crash, Streeb sat with his nephew in the ambulance as it navigated a snowy, slow road en route to a Denver metro-area trauma center.  

After 15 minutes, the paramedic in the back asked the driver to stop and help. Mañon, who dreamed of some day opening a restaurant with robot servers, died in the back of the ambulance on Christmas Eve.

His family, including his mother and grandmother, who are doctors, have so many questions. Why wasn’t a helicopter called, like they asked? Could an emergency helicopter even land at Echo Mountain? How were the patrollers who treated Mañon for a broken arm trained? Did they check for other injuries? Why did the paramedic report not include any information shared by Echo Mountain patrollers? How many other skiers have been injured or killed at Echo? 

“Is there a way for other families to not go through something like this?” Mañon’s aunt Danilda Streeb said. “It’s just so hard to learn more information about the risks in skiing.”

Etthan Mañon, 18, died after a crash at Echo Mountain. (Provided by Scott Streeb)

Resorts don’t readily share accident details. If the family was not speaking publicly, Mañon’s death may have gone unnoticed, like many ski resort deaths. That could change with legislation introduced at the Colorado statehouse last week that would require resorts to share safety strategies as well as statistics revealing injuries and fatalities. 

Senate Bill 184, “Ski Area Safety Plans and Accident Reporting,” also would require resorts to publish safety plans outlining “roles, responsibilities and practices of the ski area” to reduce accidents. The legislation’s prime sponsors are Democratic Sens. Tammy Story of Conifer and Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge. 

The bill, which does not yet have a sponsor in the Colorado House, requires all Colorado resorts to issue seasonal reports on accidents and deaths. The reports should include details about where and when the accident occurred, conditions at the time, the nature of the resulting injuries and other “non-private” information about the injured skier. The bill also requires resorts to report injuries that occur when a skier is loading or unloading from a chairlift. (Those injuries do not have to be reported to the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, which only tracks injuries sustained while riding the chair, not loading or unloading.)

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At the start of the 2020-21 ski season, a group calling itself Safe Slopes Colorado released Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment statistics showing that as many as 55 skiers and snowboarders arrive in high country emergency rooms every day. 

The reports, with details of trauma center admissions and ambulance transports from ski areas in 2018, 2019 and 2020, showed the number of skiers and snowboarders visiting ERs in ski towns grew by more than 80% from 2016 to 2019. One report showed 4,151 skiers rushed from resorts in ambulances in the last three ski seasons, which amounts to about 10 a day. Many of the injuries are serious, with CDPHE statistics showing more than one third of the 1,426 skiers admitted to Colorado’s trauma centers in the 2017-18 ski season required immediate surgery. 

Chad Miller, the lead flight paramedic for Flight for Life Colorado, which operates critical transport helicopters from five bases, including one in Summit County, said helicopters rush injured resort skiers to trauma centers “at least once a day.” 

“From the second week in December to the second week in April,” Miller said, “every day someone is suffering a life-changing injury — or worse — at a ski resort in Colorado.” 

Details of injuries are not released by ski resorts. Many deaths go unreported as well.  The National Ski Areas Association reports an average of 45 “catastrophic injuries” at all the country’s ski areas every season. Those resorts log about 55 million to 60 million visits a year, so the industry reports less than one major injury for every million skier visits. (The association defines catastrophic injuries as ““significant neurological trauma, major head injuries, spinal cord injuries resulting in full or partial paralysis and injuries resulting in the loss of a limb.”)

The CDPHE statistics identified 96 of 1,426 trauma admissions in 2017-18 that involved injuries defined as “severe” or “profound,” which is about 96 major injuries for every 127,000 skier visits in Colorado. 

The resort industry has fought hard to defeat similar legislation in other states. California lawmakers in 2010 approved a law requiring resorts to publish safety plans and issue monthly reports on injuries and fatalities, but then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. He said it placed an “unnecessary burden on resorts without assurance of a significant reduction in ski and snowboard-related injuries and fatalities.”

That position reflects the resort industry’s long-held defense against injury reporting. The industry argues that injury reports don’t lead to fewer injuries and resorts do not need the added hassles of reporting every injury. 

But resorts already record injuries. Statistics detailing most accidents at ski areas have been compiled and analyzed by the same researcher, Jasper Shealy, for several decades. Shealy’s analysis of private injury databases — published in more than 100 peer-reviewed articles — shows the rate of ski and snowboard injuries declining over the past several decades.   

Safety advocates say opening injury statistics to public review has yielded advances in safety in automobiles, amusement parks and day care centers.  

“The list of industries where improvements in safety have directly resulted from data transparency is long,” said Russ Rizzo with Safe Slopes Colorado. “This is common sense. We know skiers want this information and we feel they have a right to this information.”

Ski patrollers tend to an injured skier in Vail’s Game Creek Bowl on Dec. 11, 2020. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

The 2010 California legislation was based on the work of Dr. Dan Gregorie, a physician who has battled resorts to release injury and death statistics ever since his daughter died in an accident at California’s Alpine Meadows resort in 2006.

On Monday, a statement from Colorado Ski Country president Melanie Mills said the trade group, representing 22 of the state’s 28 ski areas, and its members are opposed to the legislation and concerned about the “wide-ranging implications” of the bill.

“We look forward to debating it at the Colorado legislature,” reads the statement. 

In December, Mills dismissed the CDPHE statistics, calling them “an incomplete data set that hasn’t been subjected to the rigors of scientific review.” She said Gregorie, who supports the Safe Slopes Colorado group, “promotes a policy agenda untethered to skier safety.”

“Other states’ policymakers haven’t bought his unscientific analysis and we don’t expect Colorado policymakers will either,” Mills told The Colorado Sun in December.

Story, the state senator co-sponsoring the bill, has been skiing in Colorado for 30 years. She raised her kids skiing. When she became a lawmaker in 2019, she heard from many skiers who were worried about safety. She researched liability waivers — used by every resort in Colorado for all skiers buying a pass or lift ticket — that increases resort immunity from lawsuits in addition to protections offered in the 1979 Ski Safety Act. She wants skiers and state regulators to have more information about safety at ski resorts.  

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“The sheer volume of serious injury speaks to the need: Skiing and riding lead to more serious injury than any other activity in our state other than driving, and yet we lack basic details of where they happen or what causes them,” she said in a statement on Monday. “Transparency will lead to more informed consumers making better decisions for their families, potentially safety improvements in ski and boarding gear and will add a needed level of accountability that currently does not exist.”

The Streebs hope to teach their children to ski. They are cheering legislation that would give them more information about how and where they should do that in the safest way possible. 

“Transparency is just absolutely needed,” Scott Streeb said. “It seems like resorts have a lot of protection in their ability to operate. With better information, could we make better decisions? Could resorts improve, with safety protocols and procedures that might have been able to save Etthan?”

Danilda Streeb hopes to work with lawmakers to convince them of the need for more transparency in resort safety reporting. 

“This is not about destroying an industry,” she said. “It’s about accountability. We have movies rated for children or adults. Seat belts are required in cars. We have all sorts of things that prevent us from being exposed to situations where we might not have the ability to control. Why not skiing?”


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