State finds Vail Resorts’ failure to replace equipment contributed to employee’s death

Published: 5/22/2022 11:10:06 PM
Modified: 5/22/2022 11:08:12 PM

Failures by Vail Resorts contributed to the death of a Stowe Mountain Resort employee last fall, the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration has found. The state agency cited Vail Resorts for not providing a place of employment free from recognized hazards “likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees” in connection with the death of Scott Lewis, 53, a Stowe Mountain Resort employee who crashed and died while riding a zipline in September, a report obtained by VTDigger reveals. The agency, commonly known as VOSHA, fined Vail Resorts $27,306.

Lewis had been working for seven years at the zipline. He was one of 15 people typically employed there each season.

Vail Resorts closed the zipline for 2022. The company has not made clear whether that closure is seasonal or permanent.

The VOSHA investigation found that Vail Resorts did not follow the instructions of Terra Nova LLC, the Utah manufacturer of the zipline, in retiring the attachment lanyard, known as the jane lanyard, made by Petzl, that Lewis was using.

The report said the lanyard was supposed to be retired annually, but had been used without replacement for three seasons. Terra Nova had last supplied jane lanyards to Vail Resorts in 2017, the year Vail Resorts bought Stowe Mountain Resort, the report found.

According to the report, Lewis was zipping at up to 82 mph down line six of the Perry Merrill leg of the zipline, the last leg, on his way to meet a group of guests, when the lanyard failed. Lewis was thrown from the ZipTour ride and hit the decking of the cable bollard at the bottom of the line. He was found under a platform, his helmet off and his harness ripped. Despite CPR, he died of his injuries.

“Mr. Lewis would not have been killed if the primary attachment lanyard had been replaced due to aging and (wear) of the lanyard,” the report concludes.

The report found Vail Resorts had not only failed to retire the lanyards every year, but resisted doing so. On June 17, 2017, 10 days after Vail Resorts announced it had closed on its purchase of Stowe Mountain Resort, the director of operations and risk management at Vail Resorts, Jamie Barrow, sent an email to the president of Terra Nova, Eric Cylvick, objecting to Terra Nova’s recommendation that the lanyards be replaced every year if they were under heavy use.

“The term heavy use is undefinable,” Barrow replied. “We are not willing to accept your change to another company’s retirement criteria without a clear safety alert or service bulletin per ASTM We will continue to follow the Petzl retirement data that is clear and definitive.” (ATSM was formerly known as American Society for Testing and Materials.)

The next day, Cylvick wrote back.

“It is our opinion that this is Petzl’s requirement,” Cylvick said, citing the company’s standards for uses ranging from “occasional” to “intensive.”

Terra Nova sent out an additional alert on Oct. 24, 2019, reminding users to replace the lanyards annually.

Again, Barrow resisted. He emailed Terra Nova the same day with a four-point email, including questioning whether Terra Nova did “really intend to have this as a safety alert as this would mean all zip-tours worldwide would need to shut down until all lanyards greater than a year old are replaced.”

Terra Nova maintained that ziplines constituted intensive use and refused to delete the safety alert, the report said.

“The Petzl jane lanyard technical notice was not followed for retirement, nor was the ZipTour ride manufacturer Terra-Nova LLC of Utah recommendation of replacing the lanyard on an annual basis,” the VOSHA report found.

In a written response to questions from one of the VOSHA investigators, Barrow replied that it is his responsibility “not to rubber stamp but rather to carefully consider these types of vendor recommendations.”

“In doing that I apply my training and experience and, if I think it necessary, consult manufacturers or independent experts,” Barrow wrote. “That process is exactly what occurred as to the Jane replacement issue.”

According to the report, the lanyard that failed had been supplied in 2017 and put into use in 2018.

In addition, the report found that while Terra Nova conducted annual inspections of lanyards, helmets and harnesses at Stowe Mountain Resort through 2019, there were no records of annual inspections after that. The Vail Resorts employee in charge of inspections told investigators she did conduct the inspections using a monthly inspection form she marked as “annual,” but the report found those forms do not provide the needed history of the equipment or the ability to track an individual piece of equipment.

The report recommended that, in addition to replacing the lanyard yearly, Vail Resorts should get certification from the manufacturer that it approves a slip knot below the belay device prior to putting the lanyard back in service. Vail Resorts wrote VOSHA on April 6, saying it will not reopen the ride and considers the closure to meet its abatement requirements.

“We continue to work with Vermont authorities concerning this accident,” Adam White, a spokesperson for Vail Resorts, said in a statement to VTDigger. “Safety is our highest priority, and Stowe Resort and the entire Vail Resorts family extend our deepest sympathy and support to this employee’s family and friends.”

“We will assess the reopening of the zip line at a future time,” White added in a subsequent email.

The report also found that Vail Resorts did not train employees to inspect personal protective equipment, such as lanyards, helmets and harnesses, so that a piece of equipment could be retired according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

“VOSHA strives to protect the health and safety of all working Vermonters and ensure employers are providing the resources needed for employees to work safely,” Vermont Department of Labor spokesperson Kyle Thweatt said in a statement. “VOSHA’s investigation found that this workplace fatality, like other incidents in Vermont, was a preventable loss felt by all involved.”

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