OSHA Fines Mammoth Resort for Patrol Deaths

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | October 8, 2006      

An article in the LA Times reports that OSHA has fined Mammoth almost $50,000 for the ski patrollers asphyxiated last winter in a volcanic fumarole and issued a “toughly worded” report holding the ski resort responsible for the deaths because they didn’t properly judge and prepare for the hazard.

I guess OSHA has to do its frequently obnoxious job, but what an awful slap for Mammoth, which is still reeling from a winter with eight fatal accidents. Our hearts go out to the folks at Mammoth, and as far as I’m concerned OSHA can go take a hike.

Two of the patrolmen fell into the fumarole while working on a fence, and a third was killed when he heroically tried to rescue the pair. Problem was, as the OSHA report is said to state, the third patrolmen was ignoring standard protocol for such situations and was improperly equipped. Any trained first aider knows the first rule is to protect the rescuer, otherwise the situation is exacerbated and you’ve got one more person to help. But what if heroics are called for? It’s tough to strike a balance between boldness and care in many situations, but when a friend only has minutes to live you have to act on instinct, and you’re not always going to make the right call. Whatever the outcome, there is nothing more special in humanity than a person laying down their life for another human being, and last winter’s tragedy in Mammoth took that verity close to home for us snow sliders.


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9 Responses to “OSHA Fines Mammoth Resort for Patrol Deaths”

  1. Shane October 9th, 2006 7:52 am

    I have to disagree Lou. While it’s only a technicality for my job and I don’t often use it, I am trained as a OSHA hazardous waste site supervisor. So I think I know where OSHA is coming from in this situation.

    That fumarole most likely classifies as a “Permit Required Confined Space” under OSHA. Such confined spaces are big enough to fit a person inside but “have limited means of egress, are not desinged for continous occupancy, and have hazardous atmospheres”. So what you might ask? Of 276 confined space entry “incidents” reported between 1974 and 1977, 193 DEATHS and 234 injuries resulted. This is somewhat old data but the point should be clear -when something goes wrong in confined spaces the odds are very high that someone is getting hurt and people often die. In fact it’s VERY common to see multiple deaths because when someone acts “heroically” to save their buddy, that person will also succomb to the same hazardous atmosphere inside the confined space.

    If Mammoth had knowledge of such a space on their property they had an ethical and legal obligation to inform and train their workers on how to safely conduct their work in and around such spaces. There should have been a “look out” man stationed at the opening of the fumarole and people should have been on harnesses and winches so that they could be safely removed from the space by someone without the need of “heroics”.

  2. Jonathan Shefftz October 9th, 2006 8:57 am

    Typo in the original post: not $500,000 but rather almost $50,000 (or $49,865 to be precise).

  3. Lou October 9th, 2006 9:00 am

    Woops! Fixed.

  4. Mike Sullivan October 9th, 2006 4:54 pm

    Right on, Lou. You’ve got a good perspective and are a refreshingly articulate writer. I enjoy reading your blog.

    Oh, and I appreciate those 14er guidebooks, too. Have you ever thought of writing the Colorado equivalent of “The Chuting Gallery”?

  5. Mark Worley October 11th, 2006 7:52 pm

    While I don’t know all the details of the accident, it did occur during a period of extremely heavy snowfall which may have significantly altered the area immediately surrounding the accident site. Perhaps more forethought by the Mammoth ski patrol should have gone into preparing for this eventuality, yet it seems to me that a cold beaurocracy like OSHA took things too far by fining the patrol. Compassion and beaurocracy don’t mix apparently.

  6. Dave C October 12th, 2006 12:40 pm

    Assuming the existence of the fumarole was well known, $50K seems like a paltry expense for an operation the scale of Mammoth. Likely as not, they will spend more money fighting the fine as the fine itself. Its also likely that this is a proposed fine, not the actual fine (which will likely end up lower).

    Personally, I think the fine is too small. $17K per fatality? Death at work is tragic – its even more so when the civil penalties for fatal employer negligence is so low.

    Whatever the final penalty, here’s hoping Mamoth gets a clue about confined space safety as mentioned in the first comment.

  7. OSHAPro March 19th, 2009 3:27 pm

    Just because a company is issued OSHA (or Cal-OSHA in this case) citations does not mean they are (or are not) in compliance with OSHA reg’s. Sometimes OSHA issues citations incorrectly, or they may not have all the info. More info about OSHA citations and appeals process can be obtained online at http://www.osha30hourtraining.com if you are interested.

  8. OSHA Training Pro July 16th, 2009 11:20 am

    Just because a company gets cited by OSHA does not means the citations are correct, many times the employer can contest the citations and get them thrown out, due to improper citing by the compliance officer. See this for more info on this process

  9. skier at mammoth that day January 8th, 2010 1:25 pm

    after being in operation 40 years and dealing with this fumarole all of those years without incident, this punishment seems overbearing. the amount of snow on the mountain that day was unfathomable. The danger of avalanche was palpable, although apparently safe. There was no true confined space. the patrollers didn’t fall into the fumerole. In fact I don’t think it’s possible for a person to enter if if they tried. They were standing on the snow…..just like everybody does. In this instance, unbeknown to them, the snow was being melted down below, but the snow on top was solid and supportive. they had no way of knowing, neither did Mammoth Mountain, the it was actually rotten below. this had never happened in 40 years. So the enclosed space they fell into was a temporary snow cave that no-one knew existed. Expecting Mammoth Mtn could to have prepared for a situation they didn’t know existed is pretty tough.
    The ski run signs are about 15 feet high, then from there they can be raised if the snow gets that high. That day I noticed that the ski run signs had been raised to their max height, and were now at or below snow levels. the signs were being dug out by mountain staff. Ie. a permanent fence is not feasible at the location of the fumerole. a temp fence is used and moved by patrollers whenever it snows so the fence is visible again. it was while attempting to relocate the fence that this incident happened. What else could mammoth have done? That said, I knew one of the patrollers and the family of another. This incident was devastating locally. NO-one believes that Mammoth Mtn has taken it lightly at all.

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