An Occupational Safety and Health Administration report to be released next month will name several safety lapses that may have contributed to the death of a Yale School of Drama student in an accident at the Yale Repertory Theatre last week, an OSHA official said Monday. The pending report has prompted questions about the University’s culpability in the student’s death.
Pierre-André Salim DRA ’09, of Jakarta, Indonesia, was crushed under the weight of several dozen sheets of particleboard on Nov. 18 while helping to unload materials from the back of a truck for a Yale Rep production set to open next week. On Monday, the University released a statement in which Drama School Dean James Bundy apologized “for any factors that could have contributed to this tragedy,” hinting that Yale may be at least partially responsible for the circumstances surrounding Salim’s death.
The director of the Bridgeport OSHA office, Robert Kowalski, shared investigators’ preliminary findings with the News on Monday.
Investigators found that the truck had been loaded incorrectly , creating a danger to anyone who was to unload it, and that students unloading the truck may not have had sufficient training to complete the task at hand safely.
Bundy has refused requests for an interview about the accident. The apology was included in a written statement released by the Yale Office of Public Affairs on Monday announcing a new scholarship in Salim’s name.
University Spokesman Tom Conroy said the University has not been threatened with a lawsuit so far.
The accident occurred when Salim and others began to unload 32 sheets of particleboard that were standing upright and were affixed to one wall of the truck, according to OSHA’s preliminary findings. The truck was parked with a 4.4 degree list toward the sidewalk, and when the straps were loosened so the boards could be removed, the stack of wood fell over and pinned Salim against the other wall of the truck, investigators said.
Salim was wearing a hard hat, but it was apparently knocked off by the impact of the wood, which weighed about 1,000 pounds, investigators said.
Those boards were stored improperly in the first place, Kowalski said. They should have been laid down on the bed of the truck or at least affixed against a wall lengthwise, he said.
A second concern, Kowalski said, was how much experience and training the students had in unloading a truck packed with heavy cargo. A lack of necessary skills may have been a factor in the accident, he said.
From a legal perspective, experts said Monday that it was too early to tell who might be responsible for the accident, but the University could be open to a lawsuit stemming from the incident. It was not immediately known if Salim had signed any type of waiver before working on the play, though those types of liability waivers typically carry little weight in court, said Michael J. Walsh, a personal injury lawyer with the Hartford firm of Moukawsher & Walsh, LLC.
Salim was working at the Yale Rep in his capacity as a student, not an employee, said Marjorie Lemmon, the manager of Yale’s Office of Risk Management, which is responsible for handling liability claims against the University. Whenever a non-employee is involved in an accident on campus, the University could be vulnerable to a lawsuit, depending on the situation, Lemmon said.
“If the facts of the situation dictate that Yale had some … negligence involved, or something that should have been done wasn’t done, or something that should not have been done was done, our general liability insurance would respond to that,” Lemmon said.
Lemmon would not comment specifically on Salim’s death.
But generally, in cases in which an injured party is not an employee — and therefore is not eligible to receive worker’s compensation as recourse for an injury under Connecticut law — the victim or his family would often use the legal system to recoup costs for medical bills or other damages, Walsh said.
“What you would do is look at all the facts and try to find who really is the most culpable party,” he said. “It could be the school. It could be other people.”
OSHA can levy no penalties stemming from the accident because it only has enforcement jurisdiction over incidents involving employees, Kowalski said.
“We don’t lay blame, what we look at is the factors involved … so it doesn’t occur again,” Kowalski said. “That’s one of the reasons why we continued with the investigation — we don’t want to see that happen again.”
Every year, Kowalski gives a presentation to theater management majors at the School of Drama to brief them on workplace safety and OSHA regulations. This year, the importance of taking precautions in materials handling will be emphasized, he said.
Salim’s accident was not the first in recent years that has raised concerns within the theater community at Yale. In the late 1990s, a spate of accidents at University theatrical productions spurred calls for more oversight of undergraduate productions to ensure they took proper safety precautions. In 1997, an actress broke her arm when she fell off a platform, the edges if which had not been properly marked with fluorescent tape. In 1998, 12 students suffered minor injuries after a platform collapsed under the weight of the dancing chorus.
The most serious injury occurred little more than a year later. Sitting in temporary bleachers constructed by the crew for a student production of “Woyzeck,” a 60-year-old woman suffered a fractured skull, among other injuries, when a railing she leaned on during the play’s climactic scene collapsed.
A medical examiner ruled last week that Salim died of head injuries suffered during the accident and that his death was accidental. The accident remains under investigation by the New Haven Police Department, said City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga.
Salim, 26, was set to receive his master’s degree in technical design and production in 2009. He graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2002 with a degree in computer science and moved to New Haven last year to attend the School of Drama.
On Monday, the University announced a scholarship that has been created in his name. The Pierre-André Salim Memorial Scholarship will cover full tuition and living expenses for one entering student each year.
Students from Southeast Asia will have preference, followed by students from elsewhere in Asia, and the scholarship will be aimed at students with an interest in technical theater and design, the University announced.