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State investigators cite city schools over hazardous stairs at All High

State labor investigators have cited the Buffalo Public Schools for the hazardous condition of the steep metal stairs at All High Stadium that caused the death last November of Buffalo News sportswriter Tom Borrelli.

Five "serious" safety violations have been leveled at the school system by the Labor Department for the ship's ladder leading to the press box located on the stadium's roof.

The News obtained the safety report after filing a Freedom of Information request with the state Labor Department's Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau.

The state charges were filed Jan. 16 after a state inspection of the facility behind Bennett High School on Nov. 19. Borrelli died Nov. 20.

Borrelli, 51, was covering a high school football game at the stadium Nov. 8, when he fell climbing the stairway to the press box and tumbled down the metal stairs.

A number of other reporters, coaches and broadcasters came forward after Borrelli's accident to say they had also either fallen or slipped on the stairs. One broadcaster said he had brought the stairs' condition to the attention of school superintendent James A. Williams.

Borrelli, a member of the National Lacrosse League's Hall of Fame, was paralyzed from his neck down and was breathing with a respirator after the accident. He died in Erie County Medical Center 12 days later.

The Buffalo Public Schools spent between $6 million and $9 million renovating All High Stadium in 2006 but eliminated a proposed elevator to the press box because of cost overruns.

Noting that All High Stadium was built in 1926, when the stairs to the press box were installed, state labor investigators say there was no excuse that the violations had not been corrected earlier.

"The hazard has existed long enough that through due diligence, the employer should have known of the hazard," wrote inspector Paul Shemkovitz in his report.

The state gave the school system until July 18 to correct the violations.

The five violations are:

* The width of the treads on the press box stairs is less than the required 22 inches. Inspectors measured the stairs at 18 inches.

* The stairway itself was installed at an angle greater than 50 degrees. Inspectors measured the stairway angle at 59 degrees.

* There is no nonslip finish on the top stair.

"The top tread of the press box stairs at All High Stadium is constructed of plywood or a similar material," the inspector wrote. "No slip-resistant finish or surface treatment has been applied to the tread surface or nosing to make the tread reasonably slip-resistant."

* The industrial stairs did not have standard 2-inch-by-2-inch-by-three-eighths-inch railings and handrails. The All High Stadium stairs had three-quarter-inch handrails.

* The stairs did not have at least seven feet of vertical clearance between the bottom of the stair treads and overhead obstructions.

The vertical clearance, measured by the inspectors, is 5 feet, 7 inches from the bottom of the stair tread and the hatchway leading to the roof.

School officials may appeal the charges, Michael J. Looby, the city attorney who serves as general counsel to the school system, said in a formal statement.

"The Buffalo Public Schools [have] requested an informal conference with representatives from the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau," Looby said. "After this informal conference, the [system] may exercise its right to appeal the notice."

State labor investigators conducted the investigation at the request of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"Public employees, media and others are subjected to falls while climbing and descending the stairs to the press box at All High Stadium," the OSHA referral stated.

Borrelli's family -- his wife, Karen, and father, George, a retired News political reporter -- hired Francis M. Letro, a Buffalo lawyer, who has filed a notice of claim that he intends to sue the school system.

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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>Violations

The state labor department cited five violations with the pressbox staircase at All-High Stadium:

* Tread width on the press box stairs is too narrow.

* The angle of the stairway is too steep.

* No non-slip finish on the top stair.

* Substandard handrails.

* Insufficient vertical clearance at the top of the stairs.

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