Inside the Ski-Injury Data Resorts Don't Want You to See

Inside the Ski-Injury Data Resorts Don't Want You to See
Photo by mauro paillex on Unsplash
For years, Westword has reported on the dearth of information about ski accidents that's publicly available. Like winter resorts across the country, ski areas in Colorado tend to release as few details as possible about injuries and deaths on the slopes, in part because there's no legislation compelling them to do so — and the Colorado Snow Safety Act of 1979 largely absolves operators from liability should anyone get hurt or killed.

Now, however, a recently formed organization called Safe Slopes Colorado is making a new push for transparency — and bolstering its call is data assembled by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that reveals the impact of injuries in greater specificity than ever before. During the 2018-2019 ski season, for example, ski accidents resulted in more than 8,000 emergency room visits and nearly 1,600 ambulance transports. For an average 120-day season, that breaks down to 66 trips to the ER and thirteen ambulance rides related to skiing every single day.

Safe Slopes Colorado's Russ Rizzo certainly isn't anti-skiing. He loves the sport and has participated in it for years — but he admits that "I never really thought about safety on the slopes until I had kids." He grew particularly concerned in February 2019, when a six-year-old was hospitalized after falling from a chairlift at Eldora.

"Parents were pretty surprised to learn that a four-year-old at a ski school would have been allowed to go on a chairlift by themselves and be expected to know how to get on and off — and if anything went wrong, there's nothing in the law that says the resort has any responsibility about what happens to this child," Rizzo says. "That was the aha moment."

Rizzo subsequently teamed with other ski-safety organizations, including Boulder-based Parents for Safe Skiing and the nationally focused SnowSport Safety Foundation, which was founded by Dan Gregorie, whose daughter died in a 2006 California skiing accident. (Gregorie was the subject of a 2017 Westword profile.) This collective managed to get the CDPHE involved, and the agency compiled a treasure trove of information.

Some of the major takeaways from the data, which was also shared with the Colorado Sun, is summarized in this Safe Slopes Colorado graphic.

These stats are just the beginning. The CDPHE was able to break down the types of injuries sustained during the 2017-2018 ski season; of the more than 1,400 accidents that took place that year in Colorado, more than 90 percent involved bone fractures or internal organ injuries.

Here are the details.

The state health department also revealed the ages of those impacted. People in their twenties suffered nearly a quarter of all injuries, but no demographic was accident-free, as seen here:
The bigger picture is outlined in a vast hospital payment database. The following graphic shows numbers for the years 2011-2019; over that span, the code for snowboard- or ski-related treatment was triggered 34,684 times in Colorado medical facilities, including 8,320 in 2019 alone.

Here are the details:

The ski industry has long touted the relative safety of its sport. Colorado Ski Country USA has regularly stressed such points, and back in February 2018, Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the Lakewood-based National Ski Areas Association, told us that more people die of lightning strikes than in skiing accidents every year.

This pitch has thus far fended off legislative action to mandate ski areas to share more information publicly, as we detailed in "Colorado Ski Resort Safety and Why Politicians Aren't Trying to Improve It." But Rizzo has been communicating with assorted lawmakers about the need for change, and he's cautiously optimistic that a bill on the subject will be introduced in the session set to start in January 2021.

While Rizzo acknowledges that skiing carries inherent risks, he strongly believes that the sport can be made safer, "and getting more transparency is a start," he says.

Click for more Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment ski-injury data from 2017-2018.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts