INDIANAPOLIS — A state agency reported today that the University of Notre Dame should have taken steps that could have prevented the tragic death of a 20-year-old student last fall.
The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration assessed the university with $77,500 in fines for six violations the agency found during its four-month investigation of Declan Sullivan's death.
Sullivan, a junior film and marketing major from Long Grove, Ill., died while videotaping Notre Dame's football practice Oct. 27. He was working from atop a hydraulic scissor lift — 39 feet above the ground — when the structure fell over in high winds.
Lori Torres, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Labor, said at a Statehouse news conference that the Notre Dame students employed as videographers had not been trained to operate the lifts beyond knowing how to move them up and down.
Furthermore, Torres said, the lifts should not have been in use the day Sullivan died, as the National Weather Service had issued a wind advisory for sustained winds of 25 to 35 mph and gusts of 45 mph.
The top gust recorded that day in South Bend was 53 mph, she said. The manufacturer of the lift Sullivan was on recommended that it not be used in wind speeds exceeding 28 mph, she added.
The Rev. John Jenkins, the university's president, sent an e-mail to students, staff and alumni in November acknowledging that the school failed to protect Sullivan. Jenkins reiterated that point Tuesday in a written response to IOSHA's report.
He said Notre Dame has great respect for the thorough and professional manner of the agency's investigation, and university officials will study the findings carefully and take any action necessary to protect the safety of students and staff.
But, 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."
Torres called Jenkins' e-mail from November a "remarkable step" and said the university was cooperative throughout the investigation. "They provided us access to every person, every document and every piece of evidence we requested," she said.
The IOSHA report does not assign blame to any individual at Notre Dame.
Jeff Carter, who heads IOSHA and serves as deputy commissioner of the labor department, said agency investigations consider an employer as a single party.
"We're charged with looking at: Did the employer maintain a safe workplace overall?" he explained. "So our investigation doesn't point a finger at an individual necessarily."
IOSHA cited Notre Dame with the most serious safety violation allowable under Indiana law.
The agency issued that "knowing violation" along with a $55,000 fine for not fully training student videographers to operate the scissor lifts and for directing them to use the lifts Oct. 27, despite the wind advisory.
The report says "the university knowingly exposed its employees to unsafe conditions." Torres said two other Notre Dame students employed as videographers were filming football practice from scissor lifts Oct. 27, but neither of them was injured.
IOSHA has issued just eight knowing violations in the past six years, Torres said. The maximum fine for such a violation is $70,000.
The agency also cited Notre Dame with five "serious violations" that carry a total of $22,500 in fines for the lack of lift training and for issues specific to the lift Sullivan was using. According to the report, the lift he was on hadn't been inspected in more than a year and hadn't been serviced as required by the operator's manual. Also, the operator's manual was not stored in a weather-proof box on the lift and some of the warning labels were missing, faded or weathered.
Torres said the agency is launching an educational program for schools that use lifts for athletics, band and other events. "This wasn't a matter of the scissor lifts being inherently dangerous," she said. "It's a big piece of equipment, so you have to have a trained operator, and you have to know what the hazards, what the risks are when you use a scissor lift."
Jenkins said Notre Dame plans to help with that effort by sharing what they've learned.
Sullivan's parents, Alison and Barry Sullivan, said in an e-mailed statement that they appreciate IOSHA's thoroughness and regard the report as an important step in preventing future accidents, even though it doesn't change the fact that their son is no longer with them.
"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," the e-mail reads.
The Sullivans added that they are grateful for the respect Notre Dame has shown them during the past several months and the open line of communication the university has maintained with them. They also commended the school for its announcement last week that it will no longer use lifts to film practices. Instead, the athletic department is installing remote-controlled cameras at the practice fields.
"We are pleased to see they are doing things in a public way so other organizations will learn from this event and, hopefully, other families will not have to go through what our family has had to go through," Mike Miley, the uncle of Declan Sullivan, said in a phone interview.
IOSHA's Carter said universities generally haven't attracted much attention from the agency. He said Notre Dame's fine in this instance is the largest levied against an Indiana university for a workplace safety violation in at least five years.
Torres said IOSHA investigated complaints about workplace safety at Notre Dame in 2007 and 2008 as well, but the agency found no violations in either case.
Notre Dame has 15 business days to accept the violations and pay the fines, contest them to the Indiana Board of Safety Review or to request an informal conference.
John Affleck-Graves, the university's executive vice president, said school officials plan to meet with IOSHA representatives again before that deadline. He said Notre Dame also will issue its own report about the incident, likely within the next four to six weeks.
Staff writer Kevin Allen:
To read the entire release from the University with statements from university officials, see the document in the related content section of this page.
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