By Alix Noble
Not one to take skiing lightly, Blackcomb ski patroller Bob Cadman has turned his mountain-top career into a PhD.
This past May Cadman received his diploma as the first graduate from UBC's Institute of Health Promotion Research. His 250-page interdisciplinary thesis incorporates sports medicine, education, epidemiology, sociology and health promotion and has some vital information for anyone who's ever slapped the boards, or board, on his or her feet.
The 35-year-old Cadman, who has a masters degree in outdoor and environmental education, undertook his thesis to find out the numbers behind what he saw as an over-representation of young people being treated for ski injuries. His observations as a patroller led him to study over 2,500 injury reports to get to the bottom of how and why youths are injured.
"My question as a patroller was where to reduce injury; we see a lot of trauma, and a lot of it is preventable," he explained.
After five years of data collecting and writing, Cadman has come up with some striking and worrisome numbers on the injury rate of skiers and snowboarders under 18.
Cadman found that although kids under 18 make up only 20 per cent of the skiing population, they sustain 29 per cent of the injuries, with adolescents between 13-17 having the highest incidence of injury.
One of the most surprising statistics, according to Cadman, was that children on school-sponsored trips have a 55 per cent greater likelihood of sustaining an injury than a peer not skiing with a school group. Cadman chalks this up to lack of instruction and supervision.
Another surprise was that injury rates don't change with an increased volume of skiers on the mountain. Weather did not appear to affect the overall injury rate either but, said Cadman, an area of further study could be to determine what kind of injuries were sustained in different weather conditions. If conditions are icy, he suggested, more upper body injuries could be sustained, if slushy, more knee and ankle injuries.
Cadman also discovered gender specific patterns for certain types of injuries. Men had significantly more head injuries, while women had more knee injuries. Knee injuries are a cause of concern to Cadman because of their debilitating nature. Cadman suggested the difference could be physiological, ability-related or due to equipment which is generally designed for men. It could be another topic for future study.
The leading ski injury site in general was the knee for skiers and the wrist for snowboarders.
Cadman's report is the first of its kind to come up with such age-specific data, which he says is good for intervention practices.
No one has ever quantified Skiers Knowledge Initiative, he said, an important indicator of what kind of ski activities youths are engaging in. Cadman and a research assistant surveyed 1,000 skiers under 18 and found that nearly 70 per cent of those surveyed ski the trees, 30 per cent ski closed runs, and 30 per cent have their bindings adjusted by a non-certified technician, usually parents or friends.
Cadman came up with 50 suggestions to reduce injuries, which include such common sense suggestions as increasing supervision in school groups, carrying a whistle and skiing with a buddy when in the trees.
But when it comes to suggestions such as encouraging kids to wear helmets, "which are usually not considered cool," said Cadman, he recognizes that there are a lot of social inhibitors to safe practices.
"The most difficult thing to change will be the social environment which affects behaviour," he said.
Cadman pointed to the attitudes and roles people take on, which are perpetuated by magazines, equipment and peers. Education and awareness is a big part of making people more safety-conscious, he said, and acknowledged that "helmets can be a fashion statement, and much of skiing and snowboarding is fashion."
It can be hard to change attitudes, Cadman said, but it has been done before with bike helmets and seat belt laws. With the increase in helmet use in other sports, and a trend towards older skiers using them, Cadman hopes that younger skiers and snowboarders will be encouraged to use helmets too.
Ski areas do a good job with keeping a safe ski environment, Cadman noted, but now need to emphasize behaviour on the mountain, knowledge and skill development. One way to do this would be to encourage recreational skiers and snowboarders to have a co-operative body.
"Ski areas have a voice, as do instructors, patrollers, and racers, but recreational skiers don't," Cadman said. "It's time ski areas and the medical community helped them develop a voice."
Cadman said recreational skiers need to learn what the problems and issues are, to let the industry know what they want.
"If people knew that 20 per cent of injuries are head injuries, they would put more pressure on government to enforce helmet regulations."
Cadman, who skis at work, and snowboards for fun, sees himself with a responsibility to distribute the information he has collected. By translating it into a lay person’s terminology and interpreting statistics, he hopes to bring home to skiers and snowboarders the importance of injury prevention. In his focus on the practical side of his research Cadman admitted he is unusual among his university peers.
"A lot of academics focus on theory, I'm looking at theory with applied research and trying to make a difference in the community."
He is the only one at the UBC institute looking at injury and sports recreation.
Although hoping to pursue an academic career, Cadman plans to work as a patroller until he finds another job. He's applying around the world, looking to do research and teaching, but he also wants to keep the practical side going. So far, he's done pretty well.
"There are not a lot of people who can put work, research and play all together and not get bored of it. My peers are envious because I get to go data collecting at a ski resort."