State plans to check on heli-skiing operations
Enforcement officers from the Alaska Occupational Safety and Health Section will conduct surprise compliance visits at random heli-ski operations throughout the state during the 2015 season.
Agency safety consultant Mike Buck revealed last month the governmental agency is putting together a “local emphasis program” for Alaska’s heli-skiing industry in the wake of the deaths of three Haines heli-skiing guides in as many years.
At a stakeholder meeting in Anchorage May 21, Buck told dozens of current and former heli-ski operators, guides, government agency representatives and members from private organizations including the Heli-Ski U.S. Association and the American Mountain Guides Association that state safety inspectors would start popping in on heli-ski operations to ensure they are in compliance with current regulations.
“As you all know, there have been three deaths in the last three years of guides in the heli-ski industry, so of course Alaska OSHA needs to get involved,” Buck said.
Haines-based Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures guide Aaron Karitis died in an avalanche this spring, and another SEABA guide, Christian Cabanilla, died in a cornice collapse in March 2013. A year before Cabanilla’s death, Alaska Heliskiing guide Rob Liberman and client Nickolay Dodov died in an avalanche.
A local emphasis program is intended to address hazards or industries that pose a particular risk to workers. Alaska has such programs for offshore oil and gas drilling platforms, longshoring and floating seafood processors.
The purpose of the May 21 stakeholder meeting was “to solicit comments on how to prevent accidents, injuries and illnesses during heli-skiing operations,” to get input from operators on industry-recognized standards and best practices, and to hold a discussion “about whether additional safety regulations related to the permitting process would reduce injuries.”
Buck said details for the program are still being worked out, and the state agency won’t publicize how many visits enforcement officers will make during the next season.
According to Buck, existing state requirements for heli-skiing include helmets, goggles and hearing protection while in or near helicopters. Recommended equipment includes avalanche airbags (that keep skiers atop avalanches), Avalungs for asphyxiation protection and body armor for trauma protection.
SEABA co-owner Scott Sundberg attended the stakeholder meeting telephonically and spoke about the company’s recent implementation of mandatory avalanche airbags for guides. “This is as simple as a PFD (personal flotation device) on someone in whitewater. They’re going to give you the most chance of survival,” he said.
Sundberg also reiterated his belief the industry should step up and regulate itself from within – similar to a system in Canada. “I think I see the writing on the wall: If we don’t do it, the feds are going to force it down our throats.”
This isn’t the first time government agencies have tried to cobble together some kind of regulation for the heli-ski industry. Mike Sullivan, a retired land manager with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources who attended the May 21 meeting, recalled hosting a meeting in Valdez in the 1990s, the heyday of heli-skiing in the area.
“We were looking at some of these same things: guide standards, specific operating areas,” Sullivan said. “It just couldn’t have been more unpopular.”
About 300 people crammed into the building for the meeting, Sullivan said, and “not one of them liked anything we had to say.” Residents were ecstatic that restaurants and hotels were full due to the booming industry. “We didn’t want to stifle (it),” he said.
“We tried to move it forward but, boy, it just did not go anywhere,” Sullivan said.
Matt Kinney, who had a “front row seat” to the development of the industry in Valdez’s Thompson Pass where he worked as a heli-ski guide, said he also hopes regulation conversations don’t die out like they did before.
“I really hope it continues, because in the past it hasn’t continued,” Kinney said. “This isn’t the first time we’ve gotten together for a group hug and then nothing has happened.”
Kinney called for mandatory avalanche airbag use, not just for guides, but for clients as well. “We have a responsibility to protect them, too,” he said.
Kinney also said he would like to see mandatory accident reports when either guides or clients are involved. “Right now, we don’t know how many clients get involved in avalanches in the heli-ski industry,” he said.
“That needs to be documented. It needs to be fully documented and not hidden away,” Kinney added.
David Hamre, founder of Girdwood-based Chugach Powder Guides, said extreme ski films and other factors have led to a dangerous culture of “risk tolerance” in the industry. “There is a certain amount of inherent risk. That doesn’t mean those risks shouldn’t be paid attention to,” Hamre said.
“You really cannot tolerate close calls... There is no difference between close calls and an accident. The only difference is luck,” he said.
Though some critics of industry safety have called for making American Mountain Guides Association certification mandatory for guides, the consensus during the May meeting seemed to be that wouldn’t be a very effective move for maximizing safety.
While AMGA does a “great job of training mountaineering guides,” Hamre said, they don’t have a training program specifically for heli-skiing. “You’re still missing half of the bag of tricks that you need to be a heli-ski guide,” he said.
State safety consultant Buck said he “isn’t really sure at this point” how the regulation conversation will continue, aside from implementing the enforcement visits this coming season.
The agency will analyze the comments received and possibly hold another public meeting to discuss any potential regulations, Buck said.