Injury stats hide good ski safety record
It's not as bad as it looks, say numbers behind the numbers
By Chris Woodall
A skier spikes himself on a tree on Blackcomb Mountain and it's big news.
A snowboarder plunges over a cliff on Whistler Mountain and it's big news, too.
Tragedies are part of the reality of winter sports in Whistler, but a too-casual look at injury statistics can be misleading.
Many factors come in to play that take large ski injury numbers down to a size that better reflects the reality.
Safety managers at both Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains say they take a close hard look at when and where skiers and boarders injure themselves, modifying the mountain ski runs where possible to keep the number of crashes, wipe-outs and impalements to a minimum.
A glance at the annual injury numbers provided by the Whistler Health Care Centre (see table) could indicate that Blackcomb looks like hell on wheels for skiers compared to Whistler Mountain, notching 2,274 injuries to Whistler's 1,083 in 1995-96.
Indeed, in every year since 1986-87 when Blackcomb slopes bounced 666 skiers to Whistler's 773, Blackcomb has registered more injuries than its cross-valley rival.
In one sense the numbers are a backhanded compliment: the rise in mishaps represents a rise in skier visits. But it's the ratio of injuries to 1,000 skiers that safety managers pay attention to most.
Blackcomb is currently running at 1.8 injuries for every 1,000 skiers, says safety manager Doug MacFarlane. Whistler Mountain reports 1.7 injuries for every 1,000 skiers, says safety manager Brian Leighton. The Canada West Ski Areas Association says anything up to 3.5 injuries per 1,000 is normal, MacFarlane says, so the local mountains compare favourably.
Blackcomb's higher numbers come as a result of its longer ski season than Whistler, says MacFarlane. "We're open sooner, longer and over the summer."
Blackcomb's lift system capacity can put more skiers on the slopes, too.
"Whistler can put 3,700 skiers per hour on their slopes, but we can put 5,700 skiers per hour on ours," MacFarlane explains.
Both mountains compile weekly stat sheets detailing who got injured in terms of age group, skill level, and sex; what the weather was like; what type of run was involved; what time of day and when in the week; and what part of the body was injured.
The stats go to the ski areas association and to the mountains' insurance company.
Grooming the slopes plays a role in diminishing the number of bangups, with strategically placed mogul fields acting as a deterrent to speeders, Leighton says, as do the series of "go slow" zones.
Then there's the human element.
Whether full-time employees or volunteers, ski patrollers "are the eyes and ears of the skier," says MacFarlane.
Blackcomb has 50 full-time patrollers and 80 volunteers, including 20 medical doctors. As well, there are 35 volunteers in the Slope Watch program to keep an eye out for visitors unfamiliar with appropriate skier conduct. Whistler Mountain has similar numbers for its runs.
Patrollers prefer to be pro-active rather than re-active when it comes to skier safety, MacFarlane explains, which means they spend a lot of time in risk management and accident prevention training.
When the inevitable happens, "we see how we can fix an incident for next time," MacFarlane says. "I'd be a fool not to learn from our mistakes."
Safety features coming along are a knee injury video and a stronger push to wear helmets.
"We're trying the video in-house," with a view to including it in ski school, MacFarlane says. "It talks about classic ways to blow your knee out (far and away the most "popular" skier injury), how to react, and how to recognize when you're in a situation that could result in an injury," MacFarlane explains.
And the ski patrol don’t proclaim to have all the answers.
"I'd like to encourage anyone with ideas about how to prevent ski injuries to contact us," MacFarlane says.