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Notre Dame Sees No Fault in Lift Death

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

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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.
 Notre Dame lifts

 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.

IOSHA Findings

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.”

Lift Cited

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.
Appeal Filed

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
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.”


Tagged categories: Equipment; Fall protection; Fatalities; Health and safety; lift; Worker training

Comment from frank orbach, (4/26/2011, 3:19 PM)

i feel the University was at fault for the mere fact they didn't train a employee for the task he was asked to do. I would like to speak directly to the person that sent that person up in the air at 20MPH.

Comment from Otis Hale, (4/27/2011, 7:46 AM)

Regardless their statement to the contrary, Notre Dame is completely responsible for killing an untrained kid leery of going up in those high winds in the first place. I`ll guarantee no experienced, competent person would have pressured him into operating equipment he was afraid of. Notre Dame`s actions strike me as being completely callous and self-serving.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (4/27/2011, 8:23 AM)

CYA from Notre Dame. The lift was operated in an unsafe manner by an untrained employee. His supervisor was present, as was the athletic director. There ARE responsible parties who should have ordered the lifts down instead of ordering the student videographers to go up, and should have ensured training happened before they ever went up for the first time on their own.

Comment from Ron Cross, (4/27/2011, 11:36 AM)

#1 lesson...follow our first gut instinct, (Mr. Sullivan was fearful before he went up, he tweeted so). Nothing ever changes until someone is hurt or killed by someone elses stupid actions or lack of knowledge.

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