After Michele Dufault ’11, an astronomy and physics major, died sometime before 2:30 a.m.Wednesday morning in an accident in Sterling Chemistry Laboratory’s machine shop, officials from the University and federal government have announced separate investigations into the tragedy.
Dufault’s death sent shockwaves through campus Wednesday, and University administrators sent out emails with emerging details and offers of support to help the community cope with the loss. As students and faculty grieved, the Yale Police started an investigation into the circumstances of Dufault’s death, and the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration began examining whether the machine shop meets safety regulations. In addition, the University announced a broad review of safety measures in facilities with power equipment accessible to undergraduates.
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Dufault was in the laboratory’s basement machine shop late into Tuesday evening working on her senior project on dark matter. As she was working with a metal lathe — a large piece of equipment with parts that spin rapidly to mold wood products — Dufault’s hair became caught in the machine, University President Richard Levin confirmed in an email Wednesday night.
Some time after the accident, other students working in the building found Dufault’s body and called the police, Levin wrote. 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 from YPD officers requesting backup. YPD directed all questions to University spokesman Tom Conroy, who did not comment on whether YPD officers phoned for help from the NHPD.
An autopsy conducted at the Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Farmington Wednesday afternoon determined that Dufault’s death was an accident, and was caused by “asphyxia due to neck compression,” said OCME investigator Kathy Wilson.
Although the autopsy is complete, Wilson added that the OCME has not yet finished its report on the incident.
The community first learned of Dufault’s death early Wednesday morning, when University Secretary Linda Lorimer sent an email to the campus. It was the first in a series of emails from administrators and college masters offering support services to those in need.
The emails also announced a series of safety measures stemming from the accident. Administrators closed Sterling Chemistry Laboratory on Wednesday and canceled all classes held in the building. Levin told students in an email Wednesday evening 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 will include both arts and science facilities.
“When something like this happens we want to be entirely confident that we have the right policies and procedures in place to protect our students,” Levin said in an interview with the News Wednesday. “I felt it was important to undertake a thorough review.”
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 added.
As the University begins its investigation and review, OSHA will also investigate whether the lab is in compliance with federal safety regulations, said OSHA spokesman Ted Fitzgerald. OSHA sent an investigator to the scene Wednesday. Fitzgerald said the investigation could last a matter of weeks, or continue for as long as six months, but he added that it is too early to establish a timetable.
Initially, Fitzgerald said, OSHA investigators were unsure whether the incident fell under the agency’s jurisdiction because Dufault was a student, not a paid employee. But because both students and University employees use the machine shop, he said, OSHA decided to investigate.
“If there was a possibility there was hazard that might affect employees, then we would want to look into it,” he said.
According to the Chemistry Department website, students and faculty can use the machine shop to “construct or modify research instrumentation,” and access is “strictly limited to those who have completed the shop course,” which lasts one semester.
David Johnson, the research support specialist listed as the instructor for the shop, could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.
Word of the tragedy spread quickly in the academic world. Stan Cotreau, the head of Harvard’s machine shop, called the accident “horrible,” but added that he cannot comment on safety procedures until the facts are clear.
The University of California, Irvine’s environmental health and safety coordinator, Joe Rizkallah, sent an email to his university’s engineering staff Wednesday to remind them that “safety, with or without machining equipment, is a shared responsibility between the student, faculty, school administration, EH&S and the university.”
A male student who was acquainted with Dufault and took Yale’s shop safety course said he felt fully informed of proper safety procedures at the machine shop.
“[Dufault] was a careful person with plenty of common sense, but sometimes accidents do happen,” said the student, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the situation. “I would appreciate if people who have no way of knowing what safety procedures were or weren’t followed would refrain from speculating.”
Nearly four years ago, another tragic death prompted an OSHA review on campus. Pierre André-Salim DRA ’09 died in November 2007 when several dozen sheets of particle board fell on him as he unloaded a truck for a play at the Yale Repertory Theater. The ensuing OSHA investigation lasted nearly a month, and ended when the federal agency recommended that the University provide thorough training to students handling heavy props.
Correction: April 14, 2011
An earlier version of this article stated that Dufault was working at a wood lathe when she died. She was working at a metal lathe.