No one individual is responsible, or will be disciplined, for the death of a University of Notre Dame student videographer who perished in a 39-foot fall from a mobile lift in a windstorm, the university has ruled.
Nor is the university accepting a $77,500 fine—the maximum possible—and six safety citations imposed last month by the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which found that the school had “knowingly exposed” student Declan Sullivan to danger.
Sullivan, 20, a junior, was filming a football practice from a fully extended mobile lift when a 51 mph gust blew over the equipment. A National Weather Service Wind Advisory had been in effect for hours that day.
University of Notre Dame
|Notre Dame partly blamed “characteristics unique to the Marklift” (left) for the fall, saying the other lifts on the field (center and right) could have remained upright in the same wind. State safety officials said the lifts functioned properly but were misused.|
Two other students who were filming from other mobile lifts at the time safely lowered their lifts after Sullivan fell.
The students were working in winds and gusts that exceeded the lift manufacturers’ specifications and warnings, IOSHA's investigation concluded. The agency said that the students had not been trained in lift safety and that Sullivan’s lift lacked warning labels and a manual and had not been inspected for more than a year, although it was functioning properly.
“The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the university made a decision to utilize its scissor lifts in known adverse weather conditions,” state Department of Labor Commissioner Lori Torres said in releasing IOSHA’s report.
IOSHA found no problem with the lift—just with the way it was used. 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.
IOSHA documents said Sullivan’s supervisor “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.”
University: No Disregard for Safety
Last week, however, the university’s president sounded a very different note in a cover letter accompanying what he called a “thorough and painstaking study” into Sullivan’s death.
“[W]e have reached the conclusion that no one acted in disregard for safety,” the Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., wrote of the university’s 171-page findings.
“We did not find any individual who disregarded safety or was indifferent to safety. Consequently, there was not any individual discipline,” Jenkins said. “Our conclusion is that it’s a collective responsibility that must be deal with collectively as we move forward.”
Dr. Peter Likins, former president of the University of Arizona, who headed Notre Dame’s investigation, echoed that sentiment: “What is clear…is that there were a series of factors in the aggregate that led to this tragedy,” he wrote. “Though a needless loss of life cries out for one to shoulder blame, the facts here do not support any single individual finding of fault.”
The university has been widely criticized for allowing Sullivan to work under those conditions. Some of the criticism has targeted Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, who was on the field at the time of the accident and said the weather “couldn’t have been more normal.”
The Notre Dame report cited as factors in the accident:
- “The presence of unusual wind conditions”; and
- “Staff Members’ Lack of Knowledge Regarding Current and Projected Weather Conditions,” although Sullivan himself had reported his fears of working amid a wind warning that day.
In contrast to IOSHA, the university also laid blame on “characteristics unique to the Marklift” that Sullivan was using. “Experts determined that the Marklift’s characteristics made it more susceptible to tipping than the JLG and SkyJack lifts” then in use by other students, the university’s report said.
The report also criticized the height at which the lift was raised, saying that the other lifts could have been safely extended to 40 feet without falling. The report includes new training protocols for employees who use aerial lifts. The university has discontinued the use of mobile lifts.
The lift manufacturer could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
IOSHA released its report on March 15, citing Notre Dame for lack of training and lack of maintenance. The university had until April 7 to pay the fine. On April 5, however, Notre Dame followed up on an informal meeting with state officials by filing a “notice of contest” that gives the school an additional 45 days to pay the fine or formally appeal.
|Declan Sullivan tweeted about his fear of working at heights in the wind shortly before he was killed.|
Notre Dame’s new report and appeal come in sharp contrast to the days following the Oct. 27 accident, when Jenkins wrote in an open letter to the community: “We at Notre Dame—and ultimately I, as president—are responsible” for Sullivan’s death.
Sullivan’s uncle, Michael Miley, said Tuesday: “The family is pleased with the detailed investigation by both IOSHA and Notre Dame in [that] they serve as a framework for other institutions to learn from. It is our hope that any organization using lifts review their procedures to seek out gaps in their guidelines and safety systems. The family very much wants to see these reports help others avoid the kind of tragedy we felt.”