Yale to investigate accident

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.

After the death of Michele Dufault ’11 on Wednesday, OSHA is investigating Yale’s safety practices.
After the death of Michele Dufault ’11 on Wednesday, OSHA is investigating Yale’s safety practices.

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.


  • Madas

    Just FYI, YDN, it was a metal lathe. Sterling doesn’t have wood lathes. Also, the shop is on the first floor, not in the basement.

  • DCHeretic

    “I would appreciate if people who have no way of knowing what safety procedures were or weren’t followed would refrain from speculating.”

    This is a wise and fair request. No one can blame Michele Dufault or Yale without knowing the facts. At this point, the facts have not been made public.

    I graduated in 1995 and did not know Michele Dufault, but I have been haunted by this tragedy since reading about it yesterday. So sad when a promising life is cut short. My thoughts are with her friends and family.

    Alum 1995

  • Yokel

    All facilities should be investigated, not solely those used by students. A walk through Gibbs Shop for example reveals very crowded conditions with too many machines for 3-4 full-time machinists. One machinist works alone in a separate room elsewhere on the first floor. What if an accident occurred there?

  • Nmalthus

    I know we dread something similar happening in our college’s student machine shop each morning when coming in to work and seeing the lights on. When the lights are off you at least know the last person in made it out. It’s kinda pointless to speculate what happened. She either followed safety procedures and something freaky went wrong or she didn’t and her hair which should have been pulled back in a way which would have made it near impossible to get caught wasn’t. It doesn’t take a lathe running at high speeds to hurt or kill someone. Sad situation nevertheless.

  • penny_lane

    I know this may seem insenstive or critical of the deceased, though it is not intended that way, but at times like these, casting a critical eye at institutional practices that may affect safety is warranted.

    Given the timing of the accident, sleep-deprivation is a possible factor. Some states, in fact, have laws against operating heavy machinery if the user hasn’t had sufficient sleep before doing so (though how they test for that, I can’t say.) Given that sleep-deprivation is chronic and widespread among the vast majority of Yale students, I would hope that getting enough sleep is covered in the safety procedures during the shop courses, and I would support closing the shop for safety purposes during times (between midnight and 7am, say) when students are likely to be too tired to operate the machinery safely. Sleep deprivation can also have deleterious effects on physical and mental health, and even a person’s ability to learn and complete quality coursework. Reminding students of the advantages of getting plenty of sleep and implementing time-management systems (which college deans are able to help one design) that can allow for good sleep habits should be a priority for the university.

  • tonykez

    Sad Sad Sad. Please pray for her parents!

  • pikadot

    penny_lane, your comment ignores the fact that many students are not on a banker’s schedule. Just as quiet-hour laws should account for people who work the night shift (and in many places do) – university policies should account for those students who are night-shifted, either due to their class schedules or the nature of their experiments. The fact that here at Yale we don’t even have access to a 24 hour library system has been a source of disquiet among the student population. Your comment is uninformed and recommends knee-jerk responses that would only cause more over-tired students to be using labs and machinery.

  • Nmalthus

    Chemistry research is a 24 hour, 7 days a week operation. It’s college, some level common sense is required when determining whether one should operate potentially dangerous machinery in their current state or not and it’s not really the ideal situation to let common sense fail. Can pretty much rest assured that everyone else using the student shop will be extra cautious when working in the shop at any time day or night knowing what just happened to their fellow student at least for the time being anyway..

  • joey00

    Tool and Die is a slow going, slow paced, pretty tedious career,although a pretty good paying field. Most shops have CNC lathing etc. – Where you close the plexiglass doors and it’s all programed in.
    Only a certain type of person excells in machine shop, a steady as she goes, precise.
    As the lathe cuts off thousands of an inch, fast turning, slooow cutting, a melodious hum eminates softly. Stoic gentleman in blue coats silently drift across the shop floor, as if on a treadmill, unemotional.
    In a shop there is always a person coming around and checking on status and well being, most do it in a friendly professional fashion, it is always a welcome sight as one sits for hours at a time minding the machine – Not usually something to run in and “knock this out”
    Giant signs saying ,”THINK”, and safety first , No Rings, or neck chains allowed, Emphasis on hair being the worse danger.
    Oh geez, Rest In Peace girl.

  • Nmalthus

    I wouldn’t say most student shops have programmable lathes or other shop machines because that’s not the case. In many universities the funding isn’t there for state of the art machines so everything is manual. The student shops tend to not be manned outside of shop class because the supervisor is usually in charge of some other operation within the Chemistry dept. The class is supposed to teach students to use each machine in the shop properly and safely in part because the shop isn’t staffed and cheaper for the researcher if they can machine the part themselves than to have the in-house machinists do it..

  • penny_lane

    pikadot, I’m an alumna, class of 2010, who pulled her fair share of all-nighters, so I know that Yalies are often expected to be studying when, as far as any clinician is concerned, they should be sleeping. I’m just saying that lack of sleep can impair judgment and motor coordination severely–in some cases as badly as intoxication. Having the shop be open until midnight, as I suggested in my previous post, would account for the fact that students are in class most of the hours between 8:30 and 5–the rest is just effective time management on the part of the student.

  • joey00

    I was just watching Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. A show about a handful of young engineers and techies, putting to test in labs and in the field such myths like ,” do cars explode when “? it looks really fun,and i’m sure it is as they are very handy around machines and lab equipment. Discovery Channel spares no expense it seems in the budget

  • Arihanta

    I think the machine shop should add a new rule requiring those with long hair to tie them back. That way, this sad accident won’t happen again.

  • pikadot

    Penny_Lane, I am a graduate student at Yale presently. It would be crippling to my research to be forced to adhere to a daylight hours schedule. Perhaps you can speak to the average undergraduate schedule, however. Where I went to undergrad, I was still to be found in the labs late at night.

  • Nmalthus

    @Arihanta That’s always a rule in any machine shop be it pro or student. Same goes for loose clothing.

  • Goldie08

    Pikadot – that’s fine, but you do so at your own risk. It’s tough to admit defeat, but when I’m tired, I pull the car over.

    I was very sorry to hear about this terrible accident and horrible tragedy. I think the only way I can look at this that makes me feel slightly better is that it is a reminder that all we have can be taken at any moment. Be safe, conscientious and enjoy life. Her family has my sympathy

  • penny_lane

    Pikadot, 7am-12am is 17 hours out of 24. Most schools (according to an article in today’s news) only have their shops open 8am-5pm (9 hours). Apparently my suggestion is actually quite generous!

  • Nmalthus

    Fully staffed by professional machinists shops where you pay a machinist to do precision machining for you are open 8am – 5pm. Chemistry student shops are open 24/7 in the majority because research does not wait until 8am.

  • pikadot

    And yet, you wouldn’t find broad support amongst the student population. But good luck pushing arguments that stem from condescending paternalism (“It’s for your own good! We know what’s best for you!”). Particularly when the impact of your decision creates the situation you’re claiming to resolve. Many shops at other institutions have closed their doors at night, and often the faculty and staff will be the first to agree that work and people suffer for it. It’s a knee-jerk, administrative reaction. If you want to effect change, why not suggest that Yale pay for staffing during those hours? They can certainly afford it.

  • connman250

    It is clear that people who worked at the lab. machine shop, were afraid to give their names because they knew that safety was lax at Yale. This happens at many places when people take safety for granted. I have worked in places where, when the supervisor was gone, they would remove their safety glasses.