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Familiarisation is not training

Leigh W Sparrow, Publisher
Leigh W Sparrow, Publisher

July 25, 2011 - Just over two weeks ago the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, USA, reached a final settlement with The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration (IOSHA) following the fatal scissor lift accident last October which killed 20 year old Declan Sullivan.

The agreement reduces the college’s fine from the original $77,500- the largest IOSHA could issue- to $42,000 - and changed its finding from “Knowing” to “Serious”. The new fine also stipulates that the school must make a “significant” donation to the family's memorial fund, lead a nationwide safety campaign about the dangers of scissor lifts and employ a liaison between the athletic department and the risk-management division to ensure employee safety.

Lori Torres, commissioner for Indiana’s labor department said: “The settlement requires one of the nation's most well-known universities to create and implement a mechanism for spreading education about scissor lifts that are used in a range of educational and athletic settings, it requires changes at Notre Dame to ensure employee safety going forward, and it formally recognizes Declan Sullivan's memory.”

Sullivan’s family has said that is satisfied with the new settlement. Earlier this year the University issued its own 124 page report on the incident, following a six month investigation by ‘experts’. It is one of the most shameful reports we have seen for some time and suggests that those who were responsible for Sullivan and other employees have not learnt the real lessons that this tragic event offered.

Before going into it – even the wording of the settlement- stipulating that the school must “lead a nationwide safety campaign about the dangers of scissor lifts” suggests that scissor lifts are dangerous, when they are in fact inherently safe when used sensibly. The wording should perhaps have focussed more on the extreme dangers of the gung-ho, ultra macho attitude of some college football coaches. If Sullivan had felt able to refuse to go up in what he knew were dangerous conditions perhaps he would be alive today.  

But back to the Notre Dame report which found that no one acted with disregard for safety. It stated that proper protocols were not established for use of the lifts, even though it had a rule, which was ignored, that lifts should not be used above 35mph.

The report even attempts to blame the scissor lift itself, saying that two other lifts in use on the day did not go over. One wonders what type of experts were used to give this advice? It seems redundant to have to say that they may have been in a more sheltered spot, or facing into the wind or at a lower height  or been wider, or carrying a higher load which would have added to their stability or or or…. The report also suggested that those responsible for the accident thought it was safe as they were using out of date weather reports that indicated lower wind levels although with the potential to gust at over 35mph.

The fact is that winds in the entire region were at record levels, booms on cranes in the area were lowered as news reports predicted winds reaching hurricane proportions. Those operating the scissor lifts were concerned – even though Sullivan was only 20 and had not been properly trained he knew instinctively that taking a scissor lift up in such wind was dangerous, he said as much on Twitter before going up- but either assumed that his elders knew better or was too scared to ‘wimp out’ or complain.

A statement from Notre Dame said:  “At its essence, we felt that the lack of available national standards on wind-related safety procedures made it impossible to put anyone in harm's way on a ‘knowing' basis, as we explained in our own investigation report.” It has a point if we are arguing linguistic semantics but a 20 year old student Knew, so why didn’t these hard boiled coaches know?

But I risk slipping into a rant which is not professional. The worst part of the entire report is the part that discusses training, it acknowledges that neither the supervisors nor the operators had received formal training to the levels required by ANSI standards. It claims that they had been trained on the functions and general operation of the lift – in other words they had received basic ‘familiarisation’ or handover, which cannot be called training.  It gets worse: It goes on to state that training would not have improved their understanding of how to deal with wind hazards nor changed anything about how the lifts would have been used on the day.

In other words training would not have helped at all!  This from an organisation that has been charged with ‘creating and implementing a mechanism for spreading education about scissor lifts’.  The report concludes that the lack of training, annual inspections, regular maintenance, and understanding of scissor lift limitations and restrictions were not contributing factors to the accident.

The fact is that if just one person had attended a one day IPAF course they would have known that even 30 mph winds would have been too high, they would have known that using a weather print-out is not how you determine wind levels, and having attended a course might have felt confident enough to refuse to take the lift up, or at the very least would have limited the height.

This is a tragic case of the typical misunderstanding that a quick familiarisation of a machines controls constitutes training – it does not. One could argue that familiarisation should reiterate the safety aspects affecting the particular machine. But most importantly now is what Notre Dame does to meet its commitment to spread the word, if industry training associations join forces with the college perhaps something really useful could come out of this so that Declan Sullivan does not just become another statistic.

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