The death of a University of Notre Dame student employee will bring forth a new nationwide safety program on scissor lifts, under a unique settlement the university has reached in the case.
In addition, Notre Dame has paid a $42,000 fine in the death of Declan Sullivan—a penalty reduced from $77,500, reflecting the reduction of a “knowing” violation in the case to a “serious” one, the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Friday (July 1).
|Declan Sullivan tweeted about his fear of working at heights in the wind shortly before he was killed.|
Sullivan, a student videographer from Illinois, was killed Oct. 27 as he was filming a Notre Dame football practice from a mobile scissor lift.
The agreement resolves the six violations and fines that IOSHA issued against Notre Dame in March. IOSHA accused the university of “knowingly” allowing Sullivan to operate a long-uninspected lift in dangerously windy conditions without adequate training.
‘Knowing’ Violation at Issue
The “knowing” violation—the state’s highest infraction level—carried a $55,000 fine. Five “serious” violations also issued in the case carried a total fine of $22,500. The serious violations stood as charged in the final settlement, and some of those fines were increased.
“We felt it was important to extend the conversation with IOSHA to obtain the highest level of accuracy in its final report,” Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown said in a prepared statement.
“At its essence, we felt that the lack of available national standards on wind-related safety procedures made it impossible to put anyone in harm’s way on a ‘knowing’ basis, as was explained in our own investigation report.”
Also as part of the agreement, signed June 16, the university will make a “substantial” contribution to the Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund within 90 days, officials said.
The amount of the contribution was not disclosed, and the state cannot legally set one, but IOSHA has told Notre Dame to “be cognizant of the magnitude of the original fines” in determining the donation to the family fund, a spokeswoman said.
In any case, the state said, the financial cost is beside the point.
“This agreement goes far beyond the requirement to pay fines,” Indiana Department of Labor Commissioner Lori Torres said in a statement.
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.|
“It requires one of the nation’s most well-known universities to create and implement a mechanism for spreading education about scissor lifts that are used in a range of educational and athletic settings, it requires changes at Notre Dame to ensure employee safety going forward, and it formally recognizes Declan Sullivan’s memory.”
Investigation Findings Differ
Sullivan, then 20, and two other student videographers were filming a football practice from mobile lifts on the afternoon of Oct. 27, 2010, while a daylong National Weather Service High Wind Warning was in effect. Sullivan’s lift was extended 39 feet when a 51 mph gust of wind blew it over.
The NWS advisory had warned of “potentially damaging gusts of up to 60 mph through the afternoon.”
The IOSHA investigation concluded that the students had been working, untrained, in winds that exceeded the lift manufacturers’ specifications and warnings. The agency also found that Sullivan's lift lacked warning labels and a manual and had not been inspected in more than a year, although it was operating properly.
Sullivan’s supervisor “admitted that he had initially instructed untrained employees to elevate on scissor lifts,” despite knowing the wind conditions, IOSHA reported. And Sullivan himself had expressed fear about working in the wind, even Tweeting in a grim joke that day about dying on the lift.
“The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the university made a decision to utilize its scissor lifts in known adverse weather conditions,” Torres said when the citations were released in March.
However, Notre Dame’s internal investigation, concluded in April, determined that no individual was to blame for Sullivan’s death. The university no longer uses mobile lifts.
‘National Education Initiative’
Brown said Friday that Notre Dame was “committed to doing all we can to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again and is working with IOSHA and others on a national education initiative on aerial-lift safety in regard to setup, training and weather-related risks.”
The program will focus on the hazards of the outdoor use of scissor lifts, and the importance of training employees that operate such lifts, IOSHA said.
Notre Dame will develop, fund and implement the lift safety program with IOSHA’s oversight and approval. The program will involve high schools, universities and other educational groups nationwide that commonly use mobile scissor lifts in their programs.
The settlement agreement also requires the university to designate a liaison between the athletic department and the risk-management division to ensure that all employees have adequate safety training. Notre Dame will also provide IOSHA with a list of other areas of the university where scissor lifts are in use and will complete refresher training for all operators of those lifts within 90 days.
“Notre Dame has said multiple times publicly that it wants to ensure nothing like Declan’s death occurs again on its watch, and that it wants to honor Declan’s memory,” said Torres.
“We believe this unique agreement allows Notre Dame to live up to those statements, and it allows our agency to carry out its primary mission, which is to advance the safety of employees throughout the state.”