The president of the University of Notre Dame has accepted responsibility for the death of a student videographer who was killed when the hydraulic scissor lift where he was working blew over in gusting winds.
“Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe,” the Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., wrote Friday (Nov. 5) in an open letter to the university community. “We at Notre Dame—and ultimately I, as president—are responsible.”
Jenkins also announced that he had asked Dr. Peter Likins, former president of the University of Arizona, “to provide an external review” of the university’s investigation into Sullivan’s death, “in order to ensure that our inquiry has been thorough, unbiased and accurate.”
“I am committed to determining why this accident happened and to ensuring the safety of our students,” Jenkins said. “We have been conducting an internal investigation to examine this accident from every possible perspective and to draw conclusions and formulate recommendations for the future.”
The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also investigating the accident.
‘This is Terrifying’
Jenkins’ statement came a week after the accident Oct. 27 that killed Declan Sullivan, 20, a junior from Long Grove, IL. Sullivan worked for the Athletic Department as a videographer and was filming an afternoon football practice from 50 feet up when the lift where he was working toppled over. He died a short time later.
The mobile hydraulic lift was one of two used as camera towers. 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. The university has been widely criticized for allowing Sullivan to work under such conditions.
The university has declined to release the make, model, safety record or condition of the lift. It also has declined to comment on the training given to students who operate the lifts or to say whether it has a policy about lift operations.
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.”
Many Operators Lack Training
About 40% of tip-overs occur when a scissor lift is extended more than 15 feet, and three-quarters of those tip-overs result in fall deaths, according to SSPC: The Society for Protective Coatings.
“Frequently, operators lack the training to know they are creating safety hazards,” SSPC says.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires, among other things, that a qualified person train all users on how to operate the lift correctly (including maximum intended load and load capacity). The user must show he or she knows how to use the lift and must be retrained if the hazards or type of lift changes, SSPC notes.
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.”
Few School Policies
A Colorado State University student suffered several broken ribs, two punctured lungs and a damaged liver when his lift was blown over while he was filming a football practice in 2000. After that, CSU developed a policy on lift operation. No individual has to go higher than his or her comfort level, and no lift is ever extended higher than 30 feet, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Otherwise, the Tribune found few guidelines—and none uniform—for lift operations at schools nationwide.
Jenkins said he had tapped Likins because he is “a world-renowned engineer” with a doctorate in engineering mechanics from Stanford University, a university administrator, a “highly regarded member of numerous NCAA committees,” and a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which is tasked with ensuring “that intercollegiate athletics programs operate within the educational mission of their colleges and universities.”
Jenkins also defended Notre Dame Head Football Coach Brian Kelly, who has been targeted for some of the criticism over the accident. Jenkins did not, however, mention Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, who was on the field at the time of the accident and said the weather at the time “couldn’t have been more normal.”
‘We Must Not Pre-Judge’
Neither the university nor IOSHA would estimate a timetable for its investigation, but Jenkins said of the university’s review: “We must be careful not to pre-judge its results.”
“Investigations and external reviews such as this take time, but I assure you that, when complete, we will issue a public report on the outcome, including information on the events of the afternoon of Oct. 27, any institutional ramifications, and recommendations for safety policies in the future.”