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Failure to Understand Lift Limits, Failure to Recognize Weather Alert Surrounds Notre Dame Accident That Killed Videographer Declan Sullivan

Wed March 16 2011 8:22 am
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Declan Sullivan, a 20-year-old student videographer at Notre Dame died from traumatic injuries October 27, 2010 after the elevated hydraulic lift he was using at almost full extension blew over in high winds. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation shows that university officials and staff failed to recognize adverse weather conditions, denied the existence of adverse weather conditions in retrospect, and at least one staff member failed to follow the limits specified by the manufacturer of the scissor lift while admitting awareness of a weather advisory that warned of possible wind gusts to 31 mph.

An OSHA investigation shows several disturbing discoveries following 10 visits by a state safety investigator that included photographs, measurements, study of weather records, study of manufacturer specifications of the scissor lift, and interviews with students and university officials.

The National Weather Service had issued a wind advisory with gusts as high as 60 mph on a day that started with morning high sustained winds and gusts, but Football Head Coach Brian Kelly and several members of his staff told an OSHA investigator that they did not find the weather to be out of the ordinary. The statements show denial — even in retrospect — and failure to be aware of the National Weather Service Wind Advisory, and failure to understand the risk of high winds to the safe operation of the scissor lift.

“It was a beautiful day. It was 68 degrees and I remember looking up 11:54 a.m. and the wind was 22 miles per hour.”
— Brian Kelly, Notre Dame Football Head Coach

The National Weather Service had warned of sustained winds between 25 to 35 miles per hour around the time of the practice. The lift’s manufacturer warns against the equipment being used in winds stronger than 28 mph. Declan Sullivan, of Long Grove, raised his scissor lift to about 39 feet, just short of its full extension, before it was toppled at about 4:50 p.m.

The model and manufacturer of the scissor lift (aerial platform) was not available at the time of this post, but an operating manual for JLG lifts — including models with maximum platform heights of 18.75 feet to 32 feet — lists a Maximum Wind Speed for all of those models of 28 mph. Wind speed records at 3:54 PM in South Bend, Indiana show a sustained wind speed of 33.4 MPH and a gust speed of 50.6 MPH. The conditions posted at that hour were the highest wind speeds among the hourly reports for the day (Weather History: South Bend, IN October 27, 2010). According to the weather records, wind gusts exceeded the manufacturer’s specified safe limit starting at 9:54 a.m. with a gust speed measurement of 31.1 mph. The 10:54 a.m. gust report does not exceed the 28 mph limit of the manufacturer, but all subsequent hourly gust reports exceed the 28 mph limit from 11:54 a.m. until past the time of the fatal incident. Even sustained winds exceed the specified limit of the machine at the 2:54 p.m. report and the 4:54 p.m. report.

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

OSHA interviews reveal that Sullivan’s boss didn’t connect the dots regarding his admitted awareness of the weather conditions and the limits of the scissor lift. He either didn’t know the specific limitations of the machine or he failed to make the connection. Declan Sullivan’s supervisor, video system technician Tim Collins, said he believed it was safe to use the lifts because and the weather service had the wind speeds in the mid-20s with gusts from 29 to 31 mph.

Collins also claimed that Sullivan did not express reservations about using the lift. The record only shows that Sullivan showed concern to a member of the football staff, “Aw, man, this sucks.”

Notre Dame officials have been criticized for failing to take responsibility for the incident. Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick described 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, and the fact that video from Sullivan’s camera — viewed by OSHA — showed coaches’ jackets and pants whipping in the wind and showed the goal posts moving. Notre Dame University allowed OSHA to view the team’s practice video, but it did not turn over the video because school lawyers said it contained “highly proprietary, trade secret information related to the business of college sports.”

Notre Dame announced last week that it has banned the use of hydraulic lifts to film practices and is planning to use a remote-controlled camera system.

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