ASPEN, Colorado " The Aspen Skiing Co. will let its on-mountain employees decide whether or not to wear ski helmets while on duty next season rather than follow Vail Resorts' industry lead.
Vail Resorts announced Monday that its 6,500 on-mountain employees at Vail Mountain, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly at Lake Tahoe in California will be required to wear helmets while on duty starting next ski season.
About 24 senior executives for Vail Resorts volunteered to wear helmets this season, according to John Garnsey, co-president of the company's mountain division. The pilot program led to the decision to require helmet use by all employees.
The reaction among employees at Vail and Beaver Creek, which Garnsey oversees, was "mixed," he said. "I think there's been push back from some. There are people who just don't like to wear helmets."
Vail Resorts didn't make the decision to try to steer the industry, Garnsey said. It made the decision if felt was best for its ski areas. And by having its employees wear helmets, it hopes to influence its guests, he said.
All children ages 12 and under who participate in group lessons at Vail Resorts will be required to wear a helmet starting in the 2009-10 season. The requirements for children in private lessons are still being contemplated.
The Aspen Skiing Co. started requiring children 12 and under in group and private lessons to wear helmets in 2003, according to company spokesman Jeff Hanle. It was the first major resort to require helmet use in that circumstance. "We strongly encourage everyone else to wear a helmet," he said.
Customers at the Skico's Four Mountain Sports shops are asked if they want to include a helmet when they rent ski or snowboard gear. And employees are offered "deep discounts" for Giro helmets, according to Hanle.
But helmet use will remain a matter of personal choice for Skico workers.
"We don't have any plans to mandate helmet use for our employees," Hanle said. "We're allowing our employees to make an informed decision."
Skico snowboarding instructor Chris Polk died in an accident at Buttermilk in March. He was not wearing a helmet, but there is no evidence it would have prevented his death. Polk collided with a tree and suffered blunt trauma to his head, chest and abdomen, according to the coroner. Polk wasn't working at the time of the accident.
The National Ski Areas Association reported last month that national surveys show 43 percent of skiers and boarders wore helmets during the 2007-08 season. That was up from 25 percent during the 2002-03 season. Helmet use was highest among children and seniors. About 70 percent of children 9 years old or younger wore helmets; and 60 percent between ages 10 and 14 wore helmets. Among adults 65 and older, 59 percent protected their noggins.
Garnsey said his company believes that number is going to climb. "Before long, more and more people will be wearing helmets," he said. The company decided to spur that movement rather than sit by.
The Denver-based NSAA warned last month that skiers and riders still need to be cautious even when wearing helmets.
"While we promote helmet usage, the medical literature indicates that helmets have significant limitations when a skier or rider is involved in a serious accident, and the increase in the use of helmets has not reduced the overall number of skiing fatalities," the organization said in a statement.
More on helmet use and other safety programs can be found at www.nsaa.org.