Notre Dame Fined $77,500 for Hydraulic Lift Death of Declan Sullivan

Notre Dame fined for lift death 

Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan died when the hydraulic lift he was on toppled as he was filming football practice. (Family photo, left. Zbigniew Bzdak, Tribune, right)

By Stacy St. Clair Tribune reporter

The University of Notre Dame has been fined $77,500 for ignoring industry standards that could have prevented the death of Declan Sullivan, a football team videographer who died last year after the hydraulic lift he was using toppled over amid strong winds, the Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration announced this morning.

The fine marks the end of a near five-month investigation conducted by the state agency, which has classified the accident as a preventable workplace fatality.

“Notre Dame did not establish and maintain conditions of work that were reasonably safe for its employees that were free from recognized hazards that caused or were likely to cause death or serious injury,” according to an OSHA statement.

The agency found Notre Dame had six violations, each of which came with a fine. They are:

• Knowingly exposing its employees to unsafe conditions by directing its untrained student videographers to use the scissor lift during a period of time when the National Weather Service issued an active wind advisory with sustained winds and guests in excess of the manufactured specifications and warnings. $55,000 fine.
• Not properly training the student employees in the operation and use of scissor lifts. $5,000 fine.
• Not doing annual, monthly or weekly inspections on the scissor lift for more than a year. $5,000 fine.
• Not having a scissor lift service as required by the maintenance schedule in the operator’s manual. $5,000 fine.
• Not having an operator’s manual kept in a weather-proof box. $5,000 fine.
• Missing some warning labels and having some labels that were weathered and faded. $2,500 fine.

Sullivan, a 20-year-old film and marketing student from suburban Long Grove, was working as a paid employee of the school’s athletic department on Oct. 27, when he went up in an aerial scissor lift to video record the football team’s practice.

The National Weather Service had issued a wind advisory for the day, and gusts reached 51 mph about the time of Sullivan’s fall. The lift carrying Sullivan crashed through a fence and landed on an adjacent street.

“The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the university made a decision to utilize its scissor lifts in known adverse weather conditions,” said Indiana Labor Commissioner Lori Torres.

Officials said the fine is the largest assessed to an Indiana school in at least five years. “It (the fine) stands out,” Deputy Labor Commissioner Jeff Carter said. “But so does the accident.”

The president of Notre Dame, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, said the university will study the report “very carefully and take the actions necessary to protect the ongoing safety of our students and staff.”

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.”

John Affleck-Graves, the school’s executive vice president, is heading a Notre Dame investigation of the accident and said he expects a report to be released in four to six weeks. “We expect that our report will include information gathered through the IOSHA investigation as we focus on all factors that contributed to the accident, including the series of decisions made on that day,” he said.

Head football coach Brian Kelly, who was on the practice field the day of the accident, said he was “sure the university will use the findings from the state to enhance the investigation into this tragedy.”

Mike Miley, Sullivan’s uncle, said the findings were not a surprise to the family. “It was an accident and there was a failure somewhere. As to the why’s and how’s, it really doesn’t matter. We still lost Declan.

“We’re grateful the investigation was thorough and that other people will learn from this tragedy,” Miley said. “We can’t change the past; all we can do is help others avoid similar tragedies.”

The university, which was given a copy of the agency’s report this morning, announced last week that it has banned the use of hydraulic lifts to film practices and has begun construction of a remote-controlled camera system.

In the wake of Sullivan’s death, Notre Dame officials came under fire for failing to take responsibility for the incident and for appearing to put the team’s interests before the student videographer’s. Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick drew particular criticism for describing the weather conditions before the tragedy as “unremarkable” despite the fact that Sullivan’s own Twitter feed indicated that he was terrified as gusts swirled about him during practice.

Jenkins later took responsibility for Sullivan’s death, saying the university failed to protect him.

“Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe,” Jenkins wrote in an e-mail to students and staff 10 days after the accident.

The Sullivan family repeatedly has expressed its appreciation to the Notre Dame community for its support. They continue to work with university officials on ways to honor Declan’s memory on the South Bend campus, where his younger sister is a freshman.

This morning, his parents released a statement saying it appreciates the “thorough investigation by the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration concerning the circumstances surrounding the death of our son, Declan. This report is an important step in preventing future accidents, but its findings do not change the fact that Declan is not with us.”

Following is the rest of the statement:

“Our family supports the efforts by the University of Notre Dame to halt the use of hydraulic lifts to film football practices and install remote-controlled cameras. We are confident that Notre Dame will address the additional issues raised in the IOSHA report.

“It is our sincere desire that universities, high schools and other institutions that use these lifts take to heart that accidents such as these are preventable and can be avoided if the designated safety measures are taken.

“We are grateful for the respect shown us over the past several months by everyone connected with Notre Dame. The University has maintained an open line of communication throughout this period and has provided timely answers to our questions.

“Finally, our family remains thankful to the many individuals who have expressed their condolences in countless ways. We would like to express gratitude for the donations to the Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund and we continue to work with Notre Dame and others to find a fitting way to memorialize Declan’s life.

“We appreciate continued respect for our privacy as we focus on dealing with the loss of our son.

“Alison and Barry Sullivan


Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune®

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