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Notre Dame Questioned in Lift Death

Monday, November 1, 2010

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Declan Sullivan

The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration has joined the investigation into the death of a Notre Dame University student who was killed when the hydraulic scissor lift from which he had been filming a football practice toppled over in a windstorm.

Declan Sullivan, 20, a junior from Long Grove, IL, had been working atop one of two mobile hydraulic lifts used as camera towers about 4:50 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 27) when the lift blew over and he plunged 50 feet onto the end of a practice field at the LaBar Practice Complex.

The wind was 51 mph at the time, and the area was under a wind advisory until 9 p.m. that evening, according to the National Weather Service.

‘I Guess I’ve Lived Long Enough’

Sullivan himself had expressed concern about the wind in two Tweets shortly before the accident.

The first, sent just as practice had begun about an hour earlier, said: "Gusts of wind up to 60 miles an hour. Well today will be fun at work. I guess I've lived long enough."

And then, just before the lift toppled:  "Holy [expletive]. Holy [expletive].This is terrifying.”

The lift either blew back or collapsed, gashing a fence and line of bushes before landing in the middle of the road. The football team evidently continued to practice, leaving the field roughly 20 to 30 minutes after the accident, the Chicago Tribune reported.

IOSHA, university police and an accident reconstruction firm are involved in the investigation so far, the university said. Sullivan was apparently using no fall protection equipment at the time.

The university owns the two mobile lifts at the ends of the field as well as two that had recently been permanently installed on the 50-yard line.

University Mum on Training, Protocols

In a news conference after the accident, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick would not discuss the make, model, inspection record, or operator or maintenance protocol for the lift. He would not say how students were trained before using the lift or if and/or how they were supervised during its use.

Nor would he say who had told Sullivan to go up that day, calling it “a series of decisions” made as part of the day’s overall practice plan. Swarbrick did say that filming of practices had occasionally been cancelled before, but that he did not know why.

Swarbrick said he had just walked onto the field just minutes before the accident. He told reporters that the circumstances, including the weather, “couldn’t have been more normal.” It wasn’t until he faced north, he said, that he felt a “pretty extraordinary burst of wind” that blew bottles and towels toward him. Then, he said, “I heard a crash.” He said he could not reconcile his perception of the weather with that of other witnesses and the NWS.

‘There’s a Lot to Learn Here’

Asked if it had been too windy for Sullivan to have been working aloft, Swarbrick said, “That’s not for me to say.”

Asked about Sullivan’s postings about the wind, Swarbrick said: “We need to understand all of the dynamics that were in place during the day.”

At least one other student was working from another tower at the time, Swarbrick added.

Asked if a student videographer would face any job consequences for lowering a lift in what he or she considered a dangerous situation, Swarbrick said he could not say.

He said the university would not comment until the investigation “thoroughly and completely” runs its course. “There’s a lot to learn here and we will learn it all in an expeditious manner.”

Although that day’s practice was canceled, Saturday’s game went on as scheduled, in honor of Sullivan.

Lift Requirements

Students, faculty members and others have expressed disbelief that a student would have been allowed to work on the lift amid such strong winds.

Both the university and IOSHA declined to comment on the issue Monday (Nov. 1).

Three-quarters of scissor lift tip-overs result in fall deaths, according to SSPC: The Society for Protective Coatings. About two-fifths of the tip-overs occur when the scissor lift is extended more than 15 feet, according to SSPC’s site.

“Frequently operators lack the training to know they are creating safety hazards,” SSPC says.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires a qualified person to train all users on:

• Any electrical, fall, and falling-object hazards;

• Procedures for dealing with hazards;

• Manufacturer requirements; and

• How to operate the lift correctly (including maximum intended load and load capacity). The user must show he/she knows how to use the lift.

If the hazards or type of lift change, or if a worker is not operating a lift properly, workers must be retrained, SSPC notes.

Stability ‘of Great Concern’

A 2007 study in the Journal of Safety Research on lift-related fatalities notes that when a scissor lift is higher than 20 feet, “the stability of the lift and worker are of great concern.”

The article notes: “OSHA regulations (1926.451 (g) (1) (vii)) mandate the use of guardrails or personal protection systems as primary safety controls for scissor lifts, which are designated as mobile scaffolds under the applicable regulation. Expert opinion indicates that this designation may not fully capture the hazardous exposures of this equipment….”


Tagged categories: Access; Accidents; Fatalities; Health and safety; lift; OSHA

Comment from Otis Hale, (11/2/2010, 9:43 AM)

The decision to allow that young man on that lift in gale force winds was criminal, and the person or persons who placed him in that danger should be tried for involuntary manslaughter. Although it would be cold comfort to his folks, Notre Dame should be taken to civil court so this incident might get a public airing, and his family be compensated. There was utterly no excuse for this death, and I hope the people who put him up there to die, have nightmares for the rest of their days.

Comment from John Lehr, (11/2/2010, 11:57 AM)

Let's put Mr. Swarbrick in a hot air balloon (like his answers and comments), during sixty mile an hour winds -- "normal." I thought integrity, virtue and honesty would be traits of an ND employee, not hiding behind rhetoric, history repeats itself. Mr. Swarbrick, would you put your son in those same conditions? Let's see how they spin this. God's love for the victim's family.

Comment from Liz Callahan, (11/2/2010, 1:46 PM)

Every manager should be thinking "What decisions will my employees make today about their working conditions and what basis of training has been provided to guide those choices?" The presence of mind to pose judgments about working conditions in tweets but not to question university staff about it - very troubling.

Comment from Charles Carter, (11/2/2010, 1:52 PM)

All too often an employee/student is subjected to adverse conditions that place them in danger. These conditions are not readily visible to the employee/student. It is the experience of the authority placing individuals in these situations that is ultimately responsible for the unfortunate outcome resulting from allowing the event to be carried out during dangerous conditions. After years of personal experience in these types of lifts, I am of the opinion that persons allowed to work in these lifts should be monitored for safe use regardless of training. Operator training does not allow for all dangers or teach wind dynamics that created this outcome. Experience and time served competence is the only true training that should be employed when equipment is trusted to protect people. This incident should have been prevented by someone more experienced.

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