AUGUSTA — A state safety board wants Maine to adopt licensing standards for ski lift mechanics in response to a chairlift derailment at Sugarloaf Mountain Resort that sent eight skiers to hospitals in December.

The Maine Elevator and Tramway Safety Board voted unanimously Monday to back legislation that could make Maine the first state to license the mechanics who maintain and repair chairlifts. While elevator mechanics need licenses in Maine and other states, ski safety experts said they know of no state that licenses ski lift mechanics.

The licensing proposal was the only formal action taken by the safety board Monday after its first discussion of the accident Dec. 28 at Sugarloaf. It did not take any disciplinary action against Sugarloaf or the licensed private inspector who declared the lift safe to operate before the ski season.

Maine’s chief safety inspector, however, told the board that he is increasing oversight of all Maine ski areas and requiring resorts to improve — or create — quality control programs.

“That appears to be a deficiency of more than one (ski) area,” John Burpee said.

Burpee said national standards require quality control, or quality assurance, programs at every area. Maine had not enforced that standard until it was highlighted by the accident at Sugarloaf.

A quality assurance program includes formal training and maintenance programs. “I’m a little disappointed with what we’re finding for quality assurance programs” at Maine ski areas, Burpee said.

Burpee outlined maintenance and training failures that he said probably contributed to the Sugarloaf accident. While the resort did many things correctly to ensure safety, “85 percent to 90 percent isn’t good enough in this business,” he said.

Burpee and board members focused on the moments before the derailment, when a mechanic attempted an improper adjustment on the misaligned Spillway East lift.

The mechanic tried to realign the cable wheels by using a turnbuckle, or stiffener, that had been installed to hold the lift in the proper position. The stiffener was not meant to be adjusted with the chairs loaded.

“The lack of formalized training, I think, led to that,” Burpee said.

When the adjustment didn’t work, mechanics tried to run the lift forward to unload it. The cable came off the wheels almost immediately. Five loaded chairs fell about 30 feet to the snow.

The mechanic who made the improper adjustment was in his second year as a full-time employee. He had been taught by senior mechanics, but there was no record that he had any formal training, Burpee said.

Burpee also was critical of Sugarloaf’s maintenance practices. The mountain’s upkeep plan called for removing the cable wheels — called sheave trains — for maintenance every four years, for example. “That does not appear to have happened,” Burpee said.

It still isn’t clear why the lift was misaligned, although the investigation revealed mechanical problems that may have contributed to the problem, according to Burpee’s report.

It also remains unclear why the private inspector who certified the safety of the lift in October did not find at least some of the maintenance problems that were discovered after the accident in December.

“It’s a little bit concerning that you would find this many things on a lift this early in the season,” said Gardiner Schneider of Sedgwick, a longtime safety board member.

Burpee said he is now less confident in the private inspections, which are paid for by the companies that insure the ski areas.

“We’re actually questioning whether the inspections we are getting from the insurance companies are doing everything we thought they were doing,” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that, but we need to keep evaluating.”

Burpee said he plans to step up state oversight of the inspection process, but hiring a staff of state inspectors is not realistic.

He said he favors improved training for lift mechanics, but he did not take a position on whether the workers should be required to have state licenses.

“Had they been licensed, would this have been prevented? I can’t say that,” he said.

Schneider said the board voted unanimously in 2003 to call for lift mechanic licensing. He personally made a similar appeal in 2007.

“It would be nice if it would happen before somebody gets killed,” he said.

He said it would produce better-trained, higher-paid and more experienced mechanics.

It is up to the Legislature to create professional licensing standards. The board voted 6-0 to request that Burpee and Anne Head, commissioner of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, present a licensing proposal to lawmakers.

Both leaders of the legislative committee that oversees professional licensing said Monday that they would welcome the discussion.

“We all know about the accident,” said Sen. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston, Senate chairman of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. “We would consider carefully anything the board and commissioner would come up with.”

“The safety of the public is the most important,” said Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham, House chairwoman of the committee. “The question that anyone has to ask is, ‘Will licensing prevent a future mishap such as that one?’… I’m certainly willing to have the discussion if it comes forward as a bill.”

A Sugarloaf spokesman could not be reached after the meeting.

Greg Sweetser, executive director of the Ski Maine Association, said ski areas will work with the tramway board and the chief inspector to improve practices and quality assurance plans.

“The number one focus is safety, so if there’s a way that we can make people feel more confident than they already are, I think that is a good thing,” he said.

The added cost of hiring licensed lift mechanics would be an issue to consider, but ensuring safety is the priority, Sweetser said.

Monday’s meeting was only the third for the state safety board since November 2008. Some members expressed frustration that the board is not more active, but Chairman David O’Brien said the problem has been assembling at least five members to make a quorum. There are now three vacancies on the nine-member board.

The vacancies appear related to a proposal, held over from Gov. John Baldacci’s administration, to disband the board and leave oversight to the commissioner of professional and financial regulation.


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