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Utah ski resort cited, fined for employee’s death

<i>KSTU</i><br/>Regulators say Park City Mountain Resort violated safety standards in an accident where a tree fell on a ski lift line
Regulators say Park City Mountain Resort violated safety standards in an accident where a tree fell on a ski lift line

By Nate Carlisle

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    PARK CITY, Utah (KSTU) — Regulators say Park City Mountain Resort violated safety standards in an accident where a tree fell on a ski lift line, killing an employee.

The citation from Utah Occupational Safety and Health (UOSH) rated the violation as “serious.” An accompanying report describes what was happening at the Short Cut chairlift before 29-year-old Christian Helger got aboard. Helger, a ski patroller at the resort, was thrown from the chair lift and fell about 50 feet into deep snow.

Summit County Sheriff’s Capt. Kacey Bates told FOX 13 News that a medical examiner determined Helger died of asphyxia.

“I actually asked a couple of my friends in the industry, ‘Have you ever even heard of a fatality from a tree falling on a rope?’” said Sean Doll, who teaches mountain resort management at Vermont State University and reviewed the UOSH report for FOX 13, “and nobody really could come up with anything off the top of their heads.”

The accident happened the morning of Jan. 2 after storms dumped about 48 inches of snow on Park City over two days, according to the report. The day before the accident, a tree also fell on Short Cut, employees told an investigator. The lift was stopped while staff removed that tree.

Lift operators are supposed to check for hazards before opening their lifts in the morning, but the workers also acknowledged shortcomings to UOSH.

One employee cited in the report said, “Lift Operators are usually newer, younger employees, and have ‘no idea’ what to look for.”

Another worker, identified only as Employee #5, the investigator wrote, “said that he was never told to check the tree corridor during the opening Line Ride as a Lift Operator.

“Employee #5 said that there is pressure to get lifts open in the morning, and there was ‘no time’ to ski the runs and check the lifts.”

Travis Heggie, a Bowling Green State University professor who studies injuries and deaths in the outdoors and related industries, and who also reviewed the report for FOX 13, called Helger’s death “completely avoidable.”

“They don’t train their employees,” Heggie said of Park City Mountain Resort. “The ski lift operators don’t have the training like the ski patrol has, they don’t have the training to look for ski hazards when they do that first run in the morning.”

Doll, however, was more sympathetic to the resort, saying it’s possible the tree did not appear to be a hazard, but the heavy snow toppled it anyway.

Utah requires lift lines to have a 5-foot clearance zone free of tree branches and all other vegetation.

“What [the ski industry has] probably learned is maybe being a little bit more hyper vigilant with regards to tree loading,” Doll said.

Vail Resorts Inc. owns Park City Mountain Resort. The company requires employees to lower safety bars when riding chairlifts.

The UOSH report doesn’t specify whether Helger’s safety bar was down. Heggie and Doll said it might not have mattered.

“With that type of a hit from the weight of that type of a tree with that much snow on it,” Heggie said, “I don’t know that the safety bar would have prevented this incident.”

Park City Mountain Resort’s vice president and chief operating officer, Diedra Walsh, issued a statement Saturday.

“The Park City Mountain team is deeply saddened by the tragic death of our team member, Christian Helger,” the statement said. “We extend our deepest sympathy to his family and friends.”

The citation says Park City Mountain Resort failed to keep its workplace free from hazards. UOSH is proposing a penalty of $2,500.

“I think it needs to be about $2.5 million,” Heggie said.

At $2,500, Heggie added, “nobody’s going to change their practices with that.”

A spokesman for UOSH declined to comment, too, citing a pending appeal by the resort.

After Helger’s death, Park City Mountain Resort closed Short Cut for the remainder of the ski season.

John Gleason, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation, said its Passenger Ropeway Safety Committee has been informed the resort plans to repair Short Cut Lift and open it again in the fall.

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