Notre Dame Cites Staff Mistakes in Death of Student From Lift's Collapse

Outdated weather information received by University of Notre Dame staff contributed to the fatal fall of a 20-year-old student while filming football practice in high winds, the school said in a report released today.

The school’s investigation of Declan Sullivan’s death in October concluded that staff members unknowingly used old data when they assessed the weather before practice and lacked the equipment to receive updated information. The staff acted within the school’s rules and no individuals were disciplined, according to the report.

“Those protocols and procedures were not adequate,” university President John Jenkins said today at a press conference. “Many people contributed to that, within the athletic department and outside the athletic department.”

Other factors contributing to Sullivan’s death included the unique characteristics of the hydraulic scissor lift he was on and its height during the windstorm, the report said.

Sullivan died on Oct. 27, when the 40-foot lift used to videotape football practices collapsed after a wind gust of 53 miles per hour. Student videographers were instructed to raise the lift only as high as they felt comfortable. Had the lift been 10 feet lower, it wouldn’t have collapsed, the report said.

The Indiana Department of Labor fined the South Bend-based university $77,500 last month for negligence in Sullivan’s death. The citation, which contends that the university “knowingly exposed its employees to unsafe conditions,” is the most serious safety violation allowed under Indiana law.

State Fines

The school was also fined for five serious safety violations, including failure to properly train student employees to use the lift and failure to give the lift annual, monthly or weekly inspection for more than a year.

The university’s report concluded that while the lift was overdue for inspection and Sullivan never received formal aerial-lift training, neither factor contributed to the accident. Notre Dame is in communication with the Department of Labor over discrepancies in the two reports, Jenkins said.

Notre Dame policy bans the use of hydraulic lifts when winds exceeds 35 mph, and before practice the staff’s weather report showed wind speeds in the mid-20s with gusts below the 35-mph limit, John Affleck-Graves, the university’s executive vice president and head of the investigation, said in the press conference.

The university staff checked wind levels eight times during the day, per university rules. The weather was last checked online at 2:46 p.m. before practice, eight minutes before the website updated with information of the heightened wind projections that exceeded the school’s threshold.

‘Grounded’

“Unbeknownst to our staff these weather websites only update their information once every hour, at six minutes to the hour,” Affleck-Graves said. “Had our staff been aware of this data, they would likely have grounded the lifts.”

The university staff lacked the equipment on the field to monitor wind speeds at real time during practice and did not assign anyone to keep an eye on the weather as practice proceeded, the report said. Affleck-Graves said the absence of measuring equipment on the field and failure to assign monitoring responsibility was a “primary weakness in the university’s procedures.”

The lift that fell was in good shape and didn’t have a mechanical failure, according to the report. Though it was overdue for inspection, its condition and upkeep weren’t factors in Sullivan’s death, the report concluded. Two heavier lifts at the field during practice stayed upright due to their weight and how it was distributed.

Full Height

Sullivan’s lift was at its full 40-foot height when it fell. Had the lift been at 30 feet, it would not have toppled in a gust of 53 miles per hour, according to the report. Affleck- Graves said any student taping practice was told he or she could lower the lift if concerned about its safety.

“All videographers interviewed confirmed they knew they could take any action in the interest of their own safety, including lowering the lifts at any time,” Affleck-Graves said.

Jenkins said Notre Dame “did not find any individual who disregarded safety or was indifferent to safety.”

The university has implemented new rules, including a 28- mph wind limit to operate any hydraulic lifts, providing staff real-time weather information, strengthening safety in the athletic department and updating hydraulic lift inspection and training programs, Affleck-Graves said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Eben Novy-Williams in New York enovywilliam@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net.

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