Starting this winter, all youth instructors on Whistler and Blackcomb are required to wear helmets - partly for their own safety, but mainly to set a positive example for students that are already required to wear head protection.
Whistler Blackcomb confirmed the new policy last week.
Currently, skiers and snowboarders using the highest level terrain park on Blackcomb are required to wear helmets, and helmets are provided to all youth in ski school where parents have to sign a special waiver if they don't want their children wearing head protection.
As a result, helmet adoption for kids 13 and under is pretty much 100 per cent, says Rob McSkimming, Whistler Blackcomb's vice president of business development.
The new policy for youth instructors includes all lessons for kids 17 and under.
"For that group it's a minor change, a large number of those youth instructors wear helmets anyway," McSkimming said. "I don't have the stats, but it's probably in the range of 80 per cent, and for snowboarding it's probably a little higher than that. We think it sets the right example for the kids they're leading.... The third reason is just that it's probably better to have people wearing them than not."
Youth instructors will be able to choose what helmet they want to wear, both to allow instructors to find the helmet that fits them best and to provide a way for the students to differentiate between instructors in uniform. Whistler Blackcomb's retail department will help ensure that helmets are available to instructors at discounted rates.
As for applying helmets to other departments, McSkimming says there are no plans to expand the policy at this time but they will be keeping a close eye on Vail Resorts, where helmets have been mandated for all staff members that ski or snowboard as part of their job.
Starting in 2009 all Vail Resorts will require employees to wear helmets when skiing or riding on the job, both to make employees safer and to set an example for other guests. The list of resorts affected by the policy includes Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly.
The announcement came in April, just weeks after actress Natasha Richardson died of a brain injury after a fall on a beginner slop in Quebec.
In a letter to staff, Vail Resorts co-presidents John Garnsey and Blaise Carrig said it was the right decision for their company.
"While there can be much debate about to what extent helmets offer protection, we have concluded that people are safer, at least to some degree, when wearing a helmet. And our conviction is even stronger about kids, where helmet usage is becoming almost universal. For many years, resorts have allowed employees to prioritize personal preference and comfort over the additional protection a helmet provides. We strongly believe that adult skiers should continue to have that right, including our employees when they are skiing or riding for recreation. However, we believe the time has come for our company to take a higher and more visible position when we are at work."
The letter also pointed out that the helmet rule in professional hockey and helmet requirements for cyclists have not damaged either sport, while arguably making both sports safer.
"While change is never easy, we strongly believe that it is the right thing to do and hope that each of you will embrace our decision in an attempt to create the safest possible environment for both our employees and our guests."
Dave Brownlie, president and CEO of Whistler-Blackcomb, encourages the use of helmets but believes they should be optional for most staff members and all members of the public.
"At this point the issue seems to be taking care of itself, as there are more and more people using helmets every year," he said. However, he worries that people may rely too much on their helmets and not enough on common sense.
"It's important to remember that putting on a helmet doesn't guarantee safety," he said. "The reality is that they are only effective at speeds which are quite low, while at higher speeds it doesn't matter as much if you're wearing a helmet or not."
Brownlie is concerned that helmets might give mountain users a false sense of safety, and give them courage to ski or snowboard at higher speeds, or to tackle bigger obstacles in the terrain park that are above their ability. Getting people to use the mountains safely and play within their limits is a bigger priority in many ways.
That said, Whistler Blackcomb is encouraging helmet use. For example, free helmet rentals are available to kids renting skis and snowboards, and helmet rentals are available to the general public as well.
Richard Kinar, a spokesperson for the Brain Injury Association of Canada and a leading advocate for helmet standards and helmet use, says the decision to make helmets mandatory for youth instructors is a positive step.
"The view of the Brain Injury Association of Canada is that this is a step in the right direction, but it's not going far enough," he said. "Our opinion at this point is that either (ski area operators make helmets mandatory for all employees) voluntarily out of respect for their workers, or WCB (Workers' Compensation Board) will force them to do so.
"We would prefer that they be proactive and do the right thing for their staff, and with the optics to their customers."
Kinar believes that all mountain staff are role models in a sense, and that by adopting a mandatory helmet policy they will in turn convince more members of the public to wear helmets.