Investigation into death of Squaw Valley ski patroller complete, two citations issued
August 16, 2017
The six-month investigation into the death of Squaw Valley Ski Patroller Joseph Zuiches has been completed.
Squaw Valley Ski Holdings has appealed the two citations received from the Department of Industrial Relations Division of Occupational Safety and Health for hazards found after the incident that killed 32-year-old Zuiches, while he was conducting avalanche control for the resort on Jan. 24.
"These citations were issued as non-accident related," Cal-OSHA Spokesperson Frank Polizzi told the Sierra Sun in a phone interview on Aug. 14.
What that means is although the infractions were discovered during the investigation of Zuiches' death, they are not related.
Polizzi said that because of the lack of evidence related to Zuiches' death, and the fact that there were no witnesses, Cal-OSHA was unable to cite anything accident-related.
"Squaw Valley was issued two citations classified as serious for failure to implement effective procedures for protecting against workplace hazards associated with hang cord entanglement during blasting operations and failure to ensure that all crew members maintained visual contact or awareness of all crew members at all times during avalanche control activities," said Sam Kieckhefer, a spokesman for the Department of Industrial Relations Division of Occupational Safety and Health in an email.
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According to the investigation summary, Zuiches was doing avalanche control with a partner when the incident occurred. The pair was working with another two-person team to deploy explosives by hand and hang cord.
The report states that at approximately 8:30 a.m., Zuiches instructed his partner to join the other team while he completed a hanging cord blast. After hearing several explosive detonations, the group radioed Zuiches but received no response. They returned to the area he was working in to find him deceased.
Both CAL FIRE and the resort reported the incident to Cal-OSHA, according to the report.
Following the investigation, Squaw Valley was fined $11,250 for "failing to correct an identified unsafe working condition by implementing a procedure for protection against the workplace hazards associated with hang cord entanglement during hang cord blasting operations," the report states.
The company also received an additional $9,000 fine for "failing to ensure that all crew members maintained visual contact or awareness of physical location of crew members at all times during avalanche control activities."
Polizzi said Squaw Valley Ski Holdings appealed both citations on Aug. 8.
According to the formal documents, the company is appealing both citations on the grounds that the penalties are unreasonable and the classification is incorrect, among many other reasons.
With the appeal process set in motion, there will be a pre-hearing teleconference between Squaw Valley and Cal-OSHA with a judge so that both parties have an opportunity to reach a settlement. If no settlement is reached, the case will go to a hearing.
"They don't take years like some criminal cases do, but they can definitely take months," Polizzi said. "It depends on the nature of the appeal."
Squaw Valley Ski Holdings CEO and President Andy Wirth declined to comment for this story, but the attorney representing the company in this case was available.
Attorney Pat McAleer, who specializes in employment practice litigation, said generally speaking employers will appeal citations for any number of reasons, including the impact they can have on insurance rates.
"In this instance, the decision to file appeals was to continue the investigation so we can determine the actual cause," he said.
McAleer added that much of the reasoning behind the citations won't be known until they've had a chance to review the related files, which have not been shared yet.
He said the appeal form includes only a list of reasons with boxes to check. On the appeals forms, he checked all of them.
"It's routine to check all of those boxes … we don't know whether they apply or not until we get the file," McAleer said.
He said it could be anywhere from 30 to 60 days before Cal-OSHA provides them with the case files, and at that point they will take time to review.
McAleer, who said he has been practicing employment law since 1980, said that although there's no date set yet for a pre-trial telephone conference, the process often takes a couple of months and both parties can engage in informal negotiations at any time.
"Most of these cases never go to trial," he said. Instead, they're usually resolved either through negotiations or dismissals.
Prior to the Jan. 24 incident at Squaw Valley, there have only been two other ski patrol fatalities associated with explosives according to an email from the California Ski Industry Association. Those incidents occurred in December 1973 at Mammoth Mountain in California, and in December 1996 at Big Sky Resort in Montana.
Amanda Rhoades is a news, environment and business reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-550-2653. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @akrhoades.