Sports Sacrifice: Unsafe Scissor Lift Operation Takes It Too Far

I live in a college town, and during the fall along the streets surrounding the campus, you will most certainly encounter a number of aerial work platforms in use. In the evenings, you can view the band conductor operating an electric scissor lift as he directs the marching band. He rolls slowly along the perimeter of the ensemble for hours as they practice stepping into formation. Other afternoons, you will find students climbing into the platforms of large deck scissor lifts with video cameras in hand to film the football team on the practice field.

Over the years, industries outside construction (like education) have adopted the use of aerial work platforms for their many benefits. They are much safer to use than ladders, scaffolding, or climbing onto a roof's edge, for example. But the downside is with the proliferation of these units, we have also witnessed misuse and abuse by owners, operators, site supervisors, and just about everyone in between. A case in point: This week a 20-year-old Notre Dame student was killed while filming football practice when the scissor lift he was standing in tipped over during 53 mph wind.

This incident really struck a nerve, not only because a young man (and budding journalist) died unnecessarily but also the circumstances surrounding it. For days, we've heard of or experienced very strong winds. A number of Midwest cities were hit with tornadoes, hail, and gale force winds. On Tuesday in South Bend, Ind., Notre Dame football practice was moved indoors due to 52 mph wind gusts. Winds on Wednesday in South Bend were just as strong, sustaining speeds of about 40 mph with gusts of 53 mph. All the while, this 20-year-old student was elevated over the field, taping practice until a gust knocked the unit over. The scissor lift crashed through a chain link fence on the edge of the field and into the street. He died later at the hospital.

News reports stated that 90 minutes before the Notre Dame junior was killed, he expressed concerns to followers of his Twitter account. Just before start of practice, he wrote: "Gusts of wind up to 60 mph well today will be fun at work...I guess I've lived long enough." About 45 minutes later, he posted "Holy f***, holy f*** this is terrifying." The unit tipped within the hour.

One of the lifting equipment industry's biggest struggles is adopting operator training and familiarization on the specifics of the equipment. Guaranteed, this student never received any instruction on equipment operation other than how to elevate/lower the machine—and we may never know who provided the instruction. Instead, he should have attended a fairly lengthy training session to not only become familiarized with the controls but to also learn how to avoid dangers like driving into trenches and over people on the ground, steering clear of building overhangs where he could become pinned between the gutters and basket, or not going up during 60 mph winds.

What enrages me is someone made the decision to send this young man up in this scissor lift knowing the site conditions were, at best, not ideal, and, at worst, deadly. Sacrificing lives for sport is unacceptable—Notre Dame Stadium is not the Colosseum, and neither football games nor practice are gladiatorial contests.

We can only hope that this young man's life was not lost in vain. Instead, we should learn from these catastrophic events and use these examples as a way to implement stronger safety requirements for operators. I'm in favor of stricter penalties for those who allow machines to operate in unsafe conditions. Additionally, operators should be able to say no when they are being asked to use the equipment unsafely. Unfortunately, operators who say no are often pegged as uncooperative or unwilling to work.

Mainstream media is all over this story—not only local Indiana newspapers and television stations but also the blogosphere on sites like Gawker and Deadspin. The outrage is apparent among the commenters on these sites. Maybe now more people will actually give a damn about aerial work platform safety.