Michele Dufault ’11 dies in Sterling Chemistry Laboratory accident

Michele Dufault '11
Michele Dufault '11 Photo by Facebook.

UPDATED: 6:30 p.m. Michele Dufault ’11, an astronomy and physics major from Massachusetts, died last night in an accident in Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, University President Richard Levin confirmed in a campuswide e-mail at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

“Vice President Lorimer, Dean Miller, and I have met with the family of Michele Dufault to extend our deepest sympathy and to offer all the assistance we can possibly provide at their most difficult time of grief,” Levin wrote in the e-mail, adding: “This is a true tragedy.”

An autopsy conducted at the Connecticut Office of Chief Medical Examiner in Farmington Wednesday afternoon determined that Dufault died from an accidental “asphyxia due to neck compression,” OCME Investigator Kathy Wilson said.

Dufault was a member of the Yale Precision Marching Band and a Saybrugian. In an e-mail to Saybrook students, Master Edward Kamens ’74 GRD ’82 expressed shock and sadness at Dufault’s death. He added in a later e-mail that there will be a vigil held for her in the Killingworth (“Grass”) Courtyard of Saybrook at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Michele Dufault '11
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Michele Dufault '11

While working in the Laboratory’s machine shop, Michele’s hair got caught in one of the shop’s wood lathes, Levin wrote in the e-mail. A lathe is a large machine used in woodworking and metal working that molds objects through use of a rotating mechanism.

Other students working in the building found Dufault’s body and called the police, who responded to the scene. New Haven Police Department Spokesman Joseph Avery confirmed that the NHPD received a 911 call around 2:30 a.m. asking for assistance at the Laboratory, but he added that the call may have been YPD officers calling for backup.

The machine shop is located in the building’s basement. According to the chemistry department’s website, access to the room where students and faculty “construct or modify research instrumentation” is “strictly limited to those who have completed the shop course.”

The accident closed Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, cancelling all classes inside. Levin wrote in the letter that the University has begun “a thorough review of the safety policies and practices of laboratories, machine shops, and other facilities with power equipment that is accessed and operated by undergraduates,” adding that this includes both arts and science facilities.

“The safety of our students is a paramount concern,” Levin wrote.

During the review, undergraduate access to facilities with power equipment will be restricted to certain hours when monitors are present, Levin said. Steven Girvin, deputy provost for science and technology, will lead the review, he said

As the University’s investigation remains underway, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has opened an investigation into whether the lab is in compliance with federal safety regulations, OSHA spokesman Ted Fitzgerald said. OSHA sent an investigator to the scene today; the investigation, Fitzgerald said, could last as little as a few weeks or as long as six months, but he added that it is too early to establish a timetable.

Because both students and University employees use the machine shop, the incident falls under OSHA’s jurisdiction, Fitzgerald said.

“If there was a possibility there was hazard that might affect employees, then we would want to look into it,” he said.

David Johnson, the research support specialist listed as the instructor for the shop, could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.

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