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Cal OSHA Fines Squaw in Ski Patroller’s Death Earlier this Year

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After a six-month investigation into the death of Squaw Valley Ski Patroller Joe Zuiches, who was fatally injured while conducting avalanche control in the Gold Coast area on Jan. 24, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health found Squaw Valley Ski Holdings in violation of two workplace safety codes and fined the resort a total of $20,250.

Cal/OSHA cited the ski resort for failure to “correct an identified unsafe working condition … associated with hang cord entanglement during hang cord blasting operations” for a fine of $11,250.

Although the agency issued the citation for hang cord entanglement, the exact cause of Zuiches’ death is unclear since there were no witnesses. The second citation states: “The employer failed to ensure that all crewmembers maintained visual contact or awareness of physical location of crewmembers during avalanche control activities.” This resulted in a fine of $9,000.

The investigation found that on Jan. 24 two pairs of patrollers were sent to the Gold Coast Ridge to conduct avalanche control using Dyno AP Plus 1.8 pound explosives with cap and fuse with a 90-second burn rate. Zuiches instructed his partner to join the other team and that he would meet him after he finished throwing bombs. However, the OSHA report concluded that the other team did not know the patroller was coming over to meet them.

“One crew of blasters was unaware that a blaster in a second crew was traveling to the first crew’s location while both crews were deploying explosives,” according to the citation, which is a violation of blasting code.

After hearing the bombs go off, Zuiches’ partner radioed him but received no response. The patrollers returned to Zuiches’ location and found him dead. The explosive device had detonated close to Zuiches’ torso area.

According to public record, Squaw Valley has appealed the citations for all 19 reasons available on the appeals form, including that OSHA does not have jurisdiction over Squaw, the citation was issued to the wrong employer and/or a nonexistent employer, an unforeseeable employee act, and an exception to the safety order exempts compliance. The appeal will go to the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board for a pre-hearing conference by telephone. If the appeal is not resolved at that time, then an administrative law judge will decide the case. The process could take around six months.

“We are respectful of the guidelines put forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and have immediately appealed this citation. Because of that, we have no comment due to the ongoing nature of the legal process,” SVSH said in a statement issued to Moonshine Ink on Aug. 7.

The Placer County Sheriff’s Office found no criminal intent in its investigation of Zuiches’ death. Sergeant Dave Hunt said that an exact explanation of what happened may never be known since no one else saw the incident occur.

“We don’t know if the device went off prematurely or he went to pick it up,” he said. “It’s hard to say what actually occurred without someone witnessing it.”

Ski patrollers getting injured or killed by hand chargers is rare. The closest local incident was in the late 1990s when a 106-caliber howitzer at Alpine Meadows misfired, killing a U.S. Forest Service employee. In 1974, a member of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol was seriously injured when he attached the fuse igniter to a hand charge prior to deployment. The fuse spontaneously ignited.

Zuiches, who worked for Squaw Valley for five years, was 42 years old and had a wife and young son.

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January 10, 2019