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Aspen Skiing Co. says put a lid on it

SCOTT CONDON
the aspen times
Aspen Times file photo
ALL | The Aspen Times

Salaried employees at the Aspen Skiing Co. will be required to wear helmets while working on the slopes next season, company officials have decided.

The decision will affect more than 500 workers, from desk jockey types in the public relations department to mountain managers and ski-school directors, said Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle. Many workers already voluntarily wear helmets while on the job on the slopes, he noted. Now it will be mandatory.

The Skico also expanded the rules for helmet use for ski-school students. Any student 17 years old and younger must wear a helmet. The previous policy required helmet use for anyone 13 and younger. Students of any age in a terrain park or halfpipe must also wear a helmet.

Starting next season, any instructor teaching an individual or a class that must abide by the helmet rule must also wear a helmet.

Hanle said the changes to the Skico’s helmet policy was shared with employees before the 2009-10 season ended. Employees were surveyed about their thoughts on helmet policies before the changes were considered, he said. He characterized the response to the changes as “overwhelmingly positive.”

The Skico is expanding the mandatory helmet policy to salaried employees “to ease our way into this and to lead by example,” Hanle said. “We want to practice what we preach.”

The salaried employees include most of the management positions in the company. Hourly ski pros, ski patrollers, lift attendants and various other types of workers won’t have to wear a lid next season, but that appears likely to change at some point.

“It seems headed in that direction in the industry,” Hanle said.

Major resort operators have been expanding their helmet requirements in recent seasons. Vail Resorts instituted a mandatory helmet policy for workers at its ski areas last season, although there were some loopholes. Intrawest expanded its rules for ski-school students.

The decisions by the ski-area operators come at a time when helmet use is soaring among skiers and riders, both locally and nationally.

Last season, 57 percent of skiers and riders were wearing helmets while hitting the slopes of U.S. ski areas, according to the latest annual survey undertaken for the National Ski Areas Association or NSAA, a Denver-based trade group. That was up from 48 percent the prior season and from 43 percent in 2007-08, according to the NSAA National Demographic Study. The study is compiled from interviews with about 130,000 skiers and riders over the course of the season.

Only one in four skiers and riders wore a helmet in 2002-03, according to NSAA.

The preliminary findings of the demographic study showed that 87 percent of children 9 and younger wore helmets while on the slopes last season as well as 75 percent of kids between ages 10 and 14.

On the other end of the spectrum, 70 percent of adults over the age of 65 wore a lid, the study showed.

Helmet use remains lightest nationally for skiers and riders between 18 and 24 years old. The survey found 43 percent of them wore a helmet last season.

Hanle said helmet use among customers at the Skico’s four ski areas is significantly higher than the national numbers. Helmet use among customers at Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk surged from 64 percent during the 2008-09 season to 73 percent for the season that just ended, he said.

Helmet use was at 59 percent locally in 2007-08 compared to 43 percent nationally.

Helmet use might be higher at Aspen-Snowmass because kids grow up accustomed to wearing the safety gear. Any child that goes through the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club must wear a helmet. Many continue doing so after they graduate from club lessons.

Safety proponents believe it helps defeat cultural stigma when young skiers and riders see Olympic stars wearing lids. Everyone from Shaun White in the halfpipe competition to downhill skiing star Bode Miller were required to wear helmets to compete in last winter’s Olympics.

Despite the surging acceptance of helmets, between 15 to 20 percent of the 600,000 ski- and snowboard-related injuries each year are traumatic brain injuries, according to a commentary last winter in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Michael D. Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. He cited in the JAMA article studies that show helmets “are associated with a 60 percent reduction in the risk of head injuries.”

Hanle said he is unaware of any efforts to make helmet use mandatory for all skiers and riders – resort workers and customers – as part of the Colorado Skier Safety Act. However, the Skico will increase its efforts in various ways to urge its customers to wear lids, he said.


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