Risky business: Meg Ellison’s quest for zero injuries at Steamboat Resort
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Meg Ellison is constantly on alert for potential danger. She checks walkways and stairways, looking for tripping hazards or slippery spots. Any odd noise comes as an alarm to her ears.
As the risk and safety manager at Steamboat Resort, a position she has held since March 2018, Ellison works to ensure that guests and employees leave the ski area just as they entered — in one, unbroken piece.
She spends a lot of time addressing one particular safety problem, which gets worse every year — people texting on their phone. More specifically, people texting on their phones while crossing the street, maneuvering a crowd or even careening down a ski run.
When Ellison sees such a person oblivious to the world around them, she sneaks behind before shocking them away from their screen.
“Hey,” she says. “Pay attention.”
Ellison never had a particular aspiration for risk management. It is fulfilling to keep people from hurting themselves or others, but by far her favorite perk is the premiere access to the mountain.
As she put it, “I was a ski bum who found a career and a passion.”
A Florida native with a skiing problem
Ellison grew up as the sole, precious child to three generations of flower shop owners in Gainesville, Florida. They all loved the state so much, no one ever moved.
Much of her family also served in law enforcement — her grandfather was the sheriff of Alachua County, which encompasses Gainesville.
Ellison tried to follow suit, studying forensic science in college to prepare for a career investigating homicides and other criminal cases.
Ironically, it was as a student in Florida that she discovered her love of the mountains. She traveled to Vail during a school-sponsored spring break trip, where she flailed and crashed her way through ski school.
In the course of six days, she progressed through the ranks and made her way higher and higher up the mountain. It was a novel experience, gazing out across miles of snow-capped peaks as the cold prickled her cheeks.
By the time she graduated, her love of skiing dashed any plans of a career in law enforcement.
As she held her diploma, one truth shone clear as a bluebird day on the slopes.
“I’m not going to use this degree,” she said. “I’m going to Colorado.”
From bumping lifts to tackling risks
Ellison got her start in the ski industry as a lift operator at Vail Mountain Resort in 2002. That meant a lot of early mornings and late nights, but she didn’t mind.
“I saw a lot of sunrises in my day,” she said.
From there, she progressed to the human resources department at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area near Keystone.
Ellison took the risk and safety management job at Steamboat Resort last year for a change of pace. She likes that the position connects her with almost every department on the mountain, where she constantly looks for ways to keep people out of harm’s way.
Her forensic anthropology degree has actually come in handy during those daily duties. Mitigating risks involves a lot of investigation and problem-solving, skills she honed in college classes.
“Although now I deal with more alive people than deceased,” she said jokingly.
As an example, Ellison noticed last season that many guests would stop in the middle of runs to rest, even in spots where uphill skiers and riders couldn’t see them. It was a recipe for collisions.
To fix the problem, she examined how roads have pullout areas where drivers can stop and rest away from the flow of traffic. Ellison modeled that idea and helped set up new signage and fencing around the mountain to give guests similar safe zones.
Ellison explained that many rules around skiing actually resemble those around driving. Legislation even exists that gives legal teeth to injuries and other incidents that occur at resorts.
The Colorado Ski Safety Act, passed in 1979, is mostly a protection measure for the resorts themselves. It states that each guest “expressly accepts and assumes the risk of any and all legal responsibility for any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.”
But it also allows skiers and riders to sue other guests if they violate certain safety rules, such as those laid out in Steamboat Resort’s responsibility code.
Similar rules exist in other states where skiing is popular. Much like driving, the downhill skier always has the right of way and must avoid people below them. If an uphill skier causes a collision, they could face a lawsuit.
This rule made national headlines in January when actress Gwyneth Paltrow reportedly crashed into a man at a resort in Utah, then fled the scene. The man is suing her for more than $3 million, which speaks to the seriousness of violating these laws.
As Ellison explained, anyone involved in a collision should stay at the scene of the crash, just as they would on the highway. Ski patrollers often document the incident, and may take photos in case of a lawsuit later on.
Ellison has seen a heightened interest in taking such incidents to court, reflecting a rise in more serious injuries at ski resorts. On drives along Interstate 70, she has noticed more billboards of lawyers advertising their services to those hurt on the mountain.
Work that never ends
Like a sailor who can’t shake the sway of the sea when he returns to land, Ellison has a hard time turning off her safety radar.
“I look at the world through a different mindset now,” she said.
Whenever she enters a room, she immediately locates the emergency exits. On airplanes, her ears perk at every suspicious noise. If the corner of a rug is flipped up, she flattens it so people don’t trip.
“I am a broken record when it comes to situational awareness,” she said.
But even a risk and safety manager has to let loose every once in a while.
Last weekend, Ellison tried longboarding for the first time — with a helmet. She liked it so much, she bought her own. In the summertime, she takes her stand-up paddleboard to the lakes in the area.
What she can’t stand is people taking unnecessary risks, like those darned folks walking into traffic with eyes glued to their cellphones.
Not five minutes after she mentioned it, a young woman walked by and almost crashed into a table because she was technologically preoccupied.
“See,” Ellison said. “I told you.”
To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.
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