Pascal Haegeli
Research report prepared for WorkSafeBC, Avisualanche Consulting, Vancouver BC, p. 22
Publication year: 2012

Executive summary

Even though there are no published studies to date explicitly contrasting the characteristics of fatal avalanche incidents involving workers versus amateur recreationists, it is reasonable to assume that there might be considerable differences between these two user groups. Avalanche professionals are generally integrated in a more advanced assessment system for avalanche hazard, they are more familiar with the avalanche phenomenon, and have more advanced rescue resources available in case of an avalanche involvement. All of these differences make it problematic to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of an avalanche safety device for worker safety exclusively based on studies that examined incidents of workers and amateur recreationists together. The goal of the present study is to examine the characteristics of recent avalanche incidents that resulted in worker fatalities to provide a better understanding of the potential benefits of avalanche balloon packs for the safety of workers.

The study period for this part of the project was October 1996 to December 2011, which roughly coincides with the use of avalanche balloon packs in Canada. The primary source of information for the present analysis is Avalanche Incidents in Canada Volume 5 by Jamieson, Haegeli, and Gauthier (2010). This publication offers the most comprehensive description of fatal avalanche incidents in Canada between the winters of 1996/97 and 2006/07. The term “worker fatality” was defined as an individual who was killed in an avalanche incident while pursuing their primary job responsibilities in avalanche terrain. They could either be getting paid at the time of the incident or could be actively training to obtain certification for future employment. According to this definition, there have been eleven worker fatalities in ten avalanche incidents in Canada during the study period.

Using results of Haegeli’s 2012 study on the effectiveness of avalanche balloon packs in Canadian avalanche incidents as a foundation, the present analysis examined the identified avalanche accidents involving worker fatalities with respect to the following four indicators for the performance of avalanche balloon pack:

  • Relative location of victim when avalanche released: Being located in the track or runout zone of the avalanche is less favorable
  • Distance carried by avalanche: Being carried for only a short distance is less favorable
  • Character of runout zone: The presence of terrain traps in the runout zone is less favorable
  • Cause of death of victim: Avalanche balloon packs are not explicitly designed to prevent trauma fatalities

The total number of negative indicators present in an accident description was used to assess the potential impact of an avalanche balloon pack for the outcome of the incident: The absence of any negative indicators was interpreted as a sign that the use of an avalanche balloon pack might have had a positive impact on the outcome of an incident. Incidents with only one negative indicator were assessed as inconclusive and incidents with two or more negative indicators were interpreted as a sign that the use of an avalanche balloon pack would likely have not been able to make a difference in the outcome of the incident.

The present examination of avalanche incidents with respect to the above four indicators reveals that only in two of eleven fatalities, a deployed avalanche balloon pack might have been able to prevent or reduce the severity of the burial and therefore positively affect the outcome of the incident. In five of the eleven cases, it is likely that an avalanche balloon pack would not have made a difference. However, that there are no indications that any of the victims would have been worse off during their involvement had they worn an avalanche balloon pack. Continuous collection of high-quality information on avalanche accident with and without fatalities is crucial for further improving our understanding of avalanche survival and the effectiveness of avalanche safety equipment.

Contact Pascal Haegeli for a copy of this report.

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