Though Yale has tightened workshop safety regulations in the year since Michele Dufault ’11 died in a woodworking machine shop accident, students and administrators say improvement in safety also depends on changing the culture within the shops.
The most drastic changes to Yale’s workshop safety regulations involve restrictions on which students can operate heavy machinery and when students are allowed to be in workshops, said Steven Girvin, the deputy provost for science and technology who led an investigation of Yale’s safety practices in response to the incident. While the new regulations have been in place for months, Girvin said the rarity of injuries in the shops makes it difficult to collect data on whether the policy changes have improved safety.
“Significant shop accidents fortunately are extremely rare events and so you can’t tell over any given short period of time, like one year,” Girvin said. “If very significant accidents only happen once every 25 years, you’re trying to reduce it from once every 25 years to once every 200 years.”
According to Connecticut Office of Chief Medical Examiner investigator Kathy Wilson, Dufault died of asphyxiation after her hair became caught in a lathe — a large machine that uses a rotating mechanism to shape wood — in the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory’s woodworking shop.
Dufault’s death occurred late at night when she was working alone, so administrators ended any 24-hour availability of shops, Girvin said. Since then, undergraduates must be supervised or use a buddy system while operating machinery, while graduate students are only required to use the buddy system, depending on the safety risks associated with each piece of equipment.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration also investigated Yale’s safety practices and released a report in August that faulted Yale for lacking adequate safety precautions in shops. The report made seven suggestions for how to improve safety, such as developing an equipment training program and displaying operating rules in all shops. Girvin said all the suggestions were implemented, though Yale was not required to comply with OSHA’s suggestions since its jurisdiction does not apply to student safety.
“We considered OSHA’s comments early on as part of the broad review and made sure there was nothing in them that we hadn’t considered or covered ourselves,” he said. “We have gone above them.”
Administrators also decided to place electronic access locks on student shops, and in some cases, to introduce video monitoring to ensure students would not come in after hours, Girvin said.
Despite measures the University has taken, both Physics Department Chair Meg Urry and Girvin said the efficacy of the new rules will also depend on creating a culture of safety in Yale’s shops.
“People really have to take responsibility if they see their friend working at a machine with their hair down, or if they see somebody carrying a dangerous substance without sufficient care,” Urry said. “They should speak up. They’re doing a service for everybody.”
Dan Ewert ’12, a history major who uses the woodworking shop at the School of Architecture to make theater sets, said he thinks students are aware of the need for precaution when operating heavy machinery.
“The regulations as they’re codified are very important, but there’s also a sense that people in the shop have to take things seriously,” Ewert said.
Dufault was an astronomy and physics major, and had planned to write her senior thesis on dark matter.