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Helmet policy riles workers

Change follows worksafeBC visit to Whistler Blackcomb in April and mixed messages on requirements
LID LAWS Whistler Blackcomb now requires all staff that ski or snowboard as part of their daily work routines to wear helmets. Photo BY Toshi Kawano, Courtesy Whistler Blackcomb

Not all Whistler Blackcomb employees are pleased with the company's new ruling requiring all staff to wear helmets while on their skis and boards.

"I would prefer to have the choice," said pro patroller Adam Giammarco, who, until now, has not worn a helmet on the job.

The new mandate, which caught most off-guard, was handed down on Friday, April 26 after WorkSafeBC visited Whistler Blackcomb on two occasions. The first spot-check visit on April 12 was to follow up on questions around a small inbounds avalanche in which two employees were caught on March 17. One worker, who was wearing a helmet, was injured.

At that meeting the WorkSafe officers asked to see Whistler Blackcomb's policy around helmet use — a policy that has been under discussion for some time.

That request snowballed as it became clear that the policy was still in development, leaving senior management scrambling to implement new helmet rules at the end of the ski season.

A second meeting was set up with senior management for April 19 to again deal with the issue.

Whistler Blackcomb officials said it was clear to them that they would be held accountable if a helmet policy was not put in place.

"We don't know what sparked this sudden change of opinion from them," said Joel Chevalier, director of employee experience.

"We're definitely keen to find out."

WorkSafeBC has a different take on the April meetings.

Al Johnson, vice president of prevention services, was not at the meetings, but said Whistler Blackcomb was never given any directive from WorkSafeBC.

"I don't know what the decision was from Whistler Blackcomb's perspective to put out their policies on Friday (April 26)," he said.

"We did not write any orders or directives for Whistler Blackcomb to immediately implement a program or a policy. In fact, we were still waiting to meet with the industry on May 30... They are under no orders by us to do this."

He suggested there was a misunderstanding or miscommunication at those meetings.

The fact remains, however, that WorkSafeBC has been working with the ski industry to bring it into compliance with Section 8.11 of the Act for more than a year.

"I can applaud (their decision) in essence because they're now leading the industry but certainly we see the industry, I'm hoping, moving in that direction for the next ski season."

Whistler Blackcomb wasn't looking to be the leader.

Chevalier said that WB only made the change, which will be enforced from May 4 on, because of the orders from the two WorkSafeBC officers.

"If they didn't ask us to do this, we wouldn't be doing it," he said simply.

"We were already in a process with WorkSafeBC to address our concerns with helmet use in some of our employees' routines."

Whistler Blackcomb along with other ski operators have been discussing the helmet issue through the Canada West Ski Areas Association for some time. CWSAA president David Lynn said he, along with Whistler Blackcomb's senior management, has been involved in high-level discussions with WorkSafeBC for about a year over helmet regulations. These discussions are still ongoing.

Lynn questioned why officers would push for a helmet policy at one ski hill, amid the wider industry-wide discussions, and he has vowed to continue to push to have the decision reversed.

For its part the CWSAA promotes helmet use through education and is opposed to legislation and regulation.

"As an industry we are extremely disappointed," he said.

"We are going to continue to advocate for our position on this."

Specifically, WB has been working to address issues like the concerns of pro-patrollers on avalanche control who find helmets to be a hindrance to communication during work.

Since the order, WB has been scrambling to communicate the new enforcement to its employees and has set up a helmet-borrowing program for the remainder of the season.

Section 8.11 of the Workers Compensation Act states:

"Safety Headgear must be worn by a worker in any work area where there is a danger of head injury from falling, flying or thrown objects, or harmful contacts."

According to Johnson, there have been 120 head injury claims from workers working in the ski industry predominately ski patrollers, instructors and lift attendants over the last five years.

"It's something that we believe is good for the industry and certainly good for those workers that work in the industry," said Johnson.

"Our intention has always been to be inclusive of all ski resorts in the province, so this is something that certainly is not singling out Whistler Blackcomb."

But Lynn takes issue with the sudden enforcement of the Act.

"We were very disappointed in the way that WorkSafeBC handled this because the regulation in question and the predecessor to that regulation have existed for many, many years and they've never been interpreted as suggesting that ski-area employees should be forced to wear ski helmets," said Lynn.

"We haven't been able to find any legitimate reason for what they're doing other than the fact that they received some pressure from an advocate or lobbyist for mandatory helmet use."

That advocate is North Vancouver's Richard Kinar, who, in the wake of recent media coverage of concussions in Whistler, amped up the pressure within the provincial government.

"I believe it's because concussion is being reported as a health crisis in Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb has not done their job in helping to promote safer sport," said Kinar.

When asked if he thought this step would pave the way to mandatory helmet use for all guests, Kinar said he has mixed feelings about obligatory helmet use for the general public.

"The difference between the general public and the mountain is... the optics; meaning that (having a helmet policy shows that) Whistler Blackcomb or the Canada West Ski Areas Association or the ski industry across Canada recognize that skiing and snowboarding is a risky sport and out of respect to the mountain staff, (they) understand there's a risk, (they) respect (their) employees health, (they're) going to mandate them to wear helmets," he said.

Earlier this season, WB managers canvassed patrollers on the issue.

Giammarco said at that time about one third said they wore helmets all the time, one third wore them when appropriate, the remaining one third never wore them.

"I have a helmet, I do wear it sometimes," he said. "But for the most part when I'm ski patrolling, I'm not putting myself in a position where I think I need to worry about my head. There are a lot of spots on the mountain where we're barely moving, tapping rime (frost) off signs and roping fences. Now I've got to wear a helmet?

"It seems to me like something where I should be trusted to decide when, and when not to, wear a helmet."