The University of Notre Dame has been fined $77,500 for “knowingly” allowing an untrained student to operate a long-uninspected lift in dangerously windy conditions, leading to the student’s death, the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Tuesday (March 15).
Student videographer Declan Sullivan
was proud of “helping out” the Notre
Dame team, his uncle said.
The fine reflects five serious violations and one knowing violation—the most severe violation available under Indiana state law—by Notre Dame for allowing junior Declan Sullivan, 20, to film a football practice Oct. 27 from an elevated mobile lift during a National Weather Service High Wind Warning.
The wind toppled the 39-foot-high lift, hurling Sullivan to his death. Two other students were also filming practices at the time from mobile lifts; they immediately lowered their lifts after Sullivan’s accident and left the field safely.
“It’s not sufficient training to know where the up and down and on and off switch is,” Department of Labor Commissioner Lori Torres said during a morning news briefing at the Statehouse in Indianapolis.
Training in the use of mobile lifts, whether purchased or rented, is “strictly incumbent on the end user,” an IOSHA spokeswoman said.
The knowing violation carries a fine of $55,000. Four of the serious violations carry $5,000 fines; the fifth carries a $2,500 fine.
Authorities found no malfunction in
the Marklift MT 40G that fell and
killed Declan Sullivan. Authorities
said Sullivan was not trained in
the equipment’s risks.
Reporting Tuesday at the conclusion of its four-and-a-half-month investigation into the accident, IOSHA found that:
• “By directing its untrained student employee videographers to use the scissor lifts during a period of time when the National Weather Service had issued an active Wind Advisory with sustained winds and gusts in excess of the scissor lift’ s manufacturer’s specifications and warnings, the university knowingly exposed its employees to unsafe conditions.”
• “Notre Dame did not properly train the student employees in the operation and use of the scissor lifts used during football practice.”
• “The scissor lift noted in this incident—owned by Notre Dame—had not been given an annual, monthly, or weekly inspection for more than one year.”
• “Notre Dame did not have the scissor lift it owned serviced as required by the preventive maintenance schedule in the operator’s manual.”
• “Notre Dame did not have an operator’s manual kept on the unit it owned in the weather proof box.”
• The scissor lift “was missing some of its warning labels and some labels were faded and weathered.”
Among the missing labels was a decal showing a wind sock with a warning that the lift should not be used in wind exceeding 25 mph, Torres said.
“The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the university made a decision to utilize its scissor lifts in known adverse weather conditions,” she said.
Lack of Training Cited
Despite the lack of required inspection and maintenance, IOSHA found no evidence of malfunction on the lift itself, the agency said. At the time, Sullivan was working on a Marklift MT 40G lift. The other students were working on a SkyJack SJ8243 and a JLG Model 4394RT. The university announced last week that it would no longer use the mobile lifts.
IOSHA documents said that student videographers “were only taught to raise and lower the lifts but no training was provided to the employees regarding any hazards associated with the use of the lifts.”
IOSHA documents said that Sullivan’s supervisor, who was not identified, “admitted that he had initially instructed untrained employees to elevate on scissor lifts” that afternoon, “knowing that the winds were in the sustained 20 miles per hour range, with gusts ranging between 29 and 31 miles per hour.”
The NWS advisory—in effect from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. CDT—warned of “potentially damaging gusts of up to 60 mph through the afternoon.” Sullivan’s lift fell about 4:50 p.m. CDT.
According to IOSHA, the supervisor told one of the students that afternoon not to go higher than the top of the goal posts—a height of 35 feet. A label on one of the lifts warned against elevating the lift in winds above 28 miles per hour.
IOSHA could not say whether Notre Dame had bought the lift new or used. The model was first manufactured in 1989. “This unit was newer than 1989, but not a lot newer,” said Deputy IOSHA Commissioner Jeffry S. Carter said at Tuesday’s news conference.
The manufacturer could not be reached for comment.
Lift Warning Outreach
IOSHA noted that many colleges, universities and high schools nationwide use mobile scissor lifts for band and athletic events, and the agency announced that it was launching a public education campaign to avert a similar tragedy.
“Scissor and other lifts are used by numerous athletic and band programs nationwide, to videotape practices as well as broadcast events,” Carter wrote in a letter to Indiana’s schools and to the National College Athletic Association (NCAA).
“We are urging all high schools, colleges and universities to review their use of lifts in these settings. Whether adult volunteers, employees, or students, the employer must ensure the lift operator is trained as to the hazards and the use of this equipment.”
The lifts are in “moderately widespread use” throughout Indiana, an IOSHA spokeswoman said.
Sullivan’s family applauded the IOSHA outreach on lift safety. “We think that the good that comes out of this terrible situation is that others can learn from this,” Sullivan’s uncle, Mike Miley, said in an interview Tuesday. Hopefully, he said, the initiative will lead to “a framework that others can use to measure the safety of these systems.”
“It’s not just about athletics,” Miley said. “And it’s not just about universities. The lesson right now is for the organizations that use these to spend some time reviewing their routine. There is always room to review policies and practices. It’s time to look at that.”
Sullivan loved his Notre Dame job and had held it for several years, but he never spoke about training for the job or its risks, Miley said.
“He never got into that level of detail. He was a college kid, and he was helping out the Notre Dame football team,” Miley said. “He loved to film, he loved to write, he loved to tell stories.”
Both IOSHA and Sullivan’s family noted that the university had taken responsibility for the accident shortly after it occurred and said Notre Dame had been accessible and responsive throughout the accident’s aftermath and investigation.
The university has 15 business days to accept IOSHA’s findings and pay the fines in full, contest the order, or request an informal hearing.
In a series of statements issued Tuesday, Notre Dame officials reiterated their condolences to the Sullivan family and said they would meet with IOSHA within the 15-day period.
The university also said IOSHA’s findings would be incorporated into the school’s internal investigation into the accident. The results of that investigation will be made public in four to six weeks, the university said.
“We will study the details [of the IOSHA report] very carefully and take the actions necessary to protect the ongoing safety of our students and staff,” said the Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., president of the University.
“We also are very interested in the IOSHA educational effort and have every intention of being a part of that to share what we learn.”
He added: “None of these findings can do anything to replace the loss of a young man with boundless energy and creativity. As I said last fall, we failed to keep him safe, and for that we remain profoundly sorry.”