A December incident at Devil’s Head Resort might lead to new national safety standards that would require resorts across the country to install new equipment on old chair lifts. Authorities say a lift at Devil’s Head in Merrimac started rolling backward rapidly Dec. 17, causing frightened skiers and snow boarders to jump from heights of up to 40 feet to avoid being flung from their chairs at the bottom of the hill. A total of 14 people were injured, but none seriously.
Proposed changes would require that lifts installed before 1982 be retrofitted with a device that automatically activates the emergency brake when a lift begins to roll backward. The National Ski Areas Association, a trade group that represents the interests of the ski resort industry, also is active in developing ski lift safety standards that are adopted by government bodies nationwide to ensure the safety of the public.
The Devil’s Head lift was not equipped with the automatic emergency braking device because it was built and installed in 1971. Guidelines adopted by the American National Standards Institute in 1982 require new lifts to be equipped with that device, but allows old lifts to be “grandfathered in.”
ANSI is a non-profit organization that oversees the creation of guidelines for everything from construction equipment to bicycle helmets. The organization has accredited the ski resort trade group as a “standards developer” for ski lifts. Under ANSI rules, anyone is allowed to submit a proposal to change standards, Byrd said.
If the new standard is adopted, it could cause problems for resorts throughout the Midwest that have old lifts, because many of the companies that manufactured those lifts have gone out of business.
An inspector for Devil’s Head’s insurance company said the December incident occurred when a gear broke, disabling the lifts main brake, and backup braking systems failed to stop the lift from reversing directions.
Under state codes, resorts are allowed to have a qualified third-party examine their lifts annually, rather than a state inspector. Documents the Sauk County Sheriff’s Department show that when the insurance company’s inspector visited the resort prior to the ski season’s opening, he authored a report requiring the resort to install the automatic braking device.
But when he listed the lack of that device as a code violation on reports he submitted to the Department of Commerce weeks after the incident, state officials would not accept the reports. They sent him a letter asking him to send new ones because the braking device requirement “is not contained in a Wisconsin adopted standard.”
The device was not required when the Devil’s Head lift was installed. And state codes, which incorporate ANSI standards, do not require that lift be retrofitted, said a spokesman for the Department of Commerce. Devil’s Head has since released a statement saying it has voluntarily installed the automatic breaking systems on all lifts.