Constant workplace safety vigilance can prevent workplace tragedies, such as the student death at Notre Dame

Last October, a 20-year-old college student at the University of Notre Dame died when a hydraulic lift he was standing on was blown over by strong winds as he videotaped an outdoor college football practice from high above the field and players.

Following an investigation into the incident and death, a recently-issued report from the Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration (IOSHA) determined that six safety violations occurred that day that contributed to the tragedy.  The university was fined $77,500 and was ordered to fix the safety violations.

The IOSHA action, however, will likely not be the end of this tragic case.  Lawsuits will likely follow.

An image of several types of scissors-type hydraulic lifts like the one involved in the death at the University of Notre Dame. Image credit: ©

An image of several types of scissors-type hydraulic lifts like the one involved in the death at the University of Notre Dame. Image credit: ©

But at its heart, this case is a classic example of the constant need for vigilance when it comes to workplace safety in every employment situation.

The student, Declan Sullivan, was doing his job that day as he stood some 39 feet above the football practice field on top of a hydraulic scissors lift to gain a good vantage point for his filming, according to a story last week in The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record.

But he wasn’t happy about the windy conditions in which he had to do his job last Oct. 27, the IOSHA report found.

“Aw man, this sucks,” Sullivan told an assistant video coordinator at the field that day, according to the story in The Record.  “Less than an hour earlier, Sullivan had [sent a message on his account to share] his concerns about what he described as ‘terrifying’ weather. Gusts of wind up to 60 mph today will be fun at work  …  I guess I’ve lived long enough,'” he wrote,  according to the story.

The hydraulic lifts were designed to be used in winds below 28 mph, according to the story, while weather forecasts that day included warnings for winds of 25 mph to 35 mph, with gusts of up to 45 mph.

Sullivan died when the lift he was standing on was blown over by a wind gust, throwing him to the ground from about 39 feet above the field.

“The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the university made a decision to utilize its scissor lifts in known adverse weather conditions,” Lori Torres, the commissioner of the IOSHA office, said in a news conference held by the agency.

The IOSHA report said the school didn’t provide proper training to employees in using the hydraulic lifts and failed to have the lifting equipment inspected on a proper schedule for more than a year.  The lift also had not been regularly serviced and maintained according to the recommendations given by its manufacturer, nor was an operator’s manual kept on the lift, IOSHA said.

The key violation, though, was that IOSHA “found that 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.”

“By directing its untrained student employee videographers to use the scissor lifts during a period of time when the National Weather Service had issued an active Wind Advisory with sustained winds and gusts in excess of the scissor lift’ s manufacturer’s specifications and warnings, the university knowingly exposed its employees to unsafe conditions,”  the agency said.  For that violation, IOSHA fined Notre Dame $55,000, the largest of the fines in the case.

As part of its follow-up in the case IOSHA’s Torres said the agency will also begin a safety program for such lifts, aimed at universities, colleges and high schools.  “Scissor and other lifts are used by many athletic and band programs nationwide to videotape practices and broadcast events,” she said.  “We want to ensure that they are only being used by trained operators in safe conditions.”

Earlier this month, officials at the University of Notre Dame announced that they will no longer use the hydraulic lifts for filming at football practices and games.  Instead, work is already underway to install a remote camera and video system to allow the filming to be done without camera operators being placed on hydraulic lifts.

“I said in the days after Declan’s death that we would do everything in our power to make changes to ensure that such an accident does not happen again – here or elsewhere,” the Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president, said in a statement.  “This system puts safety at the forefront in a completely new and innovative way.”

For the victim’s family, the pain of the events on that October day will never be completely erased.

That’s why we all have to find some kind of lessons from this tragedy so it doesn’t happen again.

If you or someone you love is asked to do something in your workplace that appears to be dangerous or life-threatening, then you need to thoroughly and completely discuss it with the person asking you to perform the dangerous task.

You need to be sure that all safety procedures are being followed to the letter and that you are minimizing any and all risks to yourself and others.

And if you still have concerns, then you need to discuss them immediately with others in the workplace until you get a satisfactory reply regarding safety and proper procedures.

If such a situation puts your job in jeopardy, or if you are injured on the job due to unsafe conditions, then you should contact a qualified attorney who can fight for you and your rights.  The skilled attorneys and legal staff here at MyPhillyLawyer are here to help you in such a case.

You have the right to remain safe in your workplace. Be sure that you protect those rights for you and your family.