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Yale defends procedures after student death

19 Aug 2011
Michele Dufault

Yale University has defended its safety record after the US government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) criticized the university’s safety procedures following the death of a student in April. A letter from OSHA area director, Robert Kowalski, to the university on 15 August accused it of several safety violations involving the high-speed metal lathe that killed physics student Michele Dufault. However, Yale spokesperson Tom Conroy has dismissed the charges, saying that the OSHA’s assessment contains “a number of significant inaccuracies”.

Dufault was working alone on a research project in a chemistry building on campus late at night when her hair caught in the lathe. The postmortem showed that she died from “asphyxiation due to neck compression”. The OSHA says that it has identified several safety issues in the machine shop where Dufault died. The lathe, Kowalski’s letter states, lacked any physical guarding, emergency stops or personal-protection equipment. The OSHA also notes that safety inspections and audits did not recommend safeguards for the machine and that rules and regulations regarding its use were not posted in the machine shop.

Kowalski gives several recommendations for the university, including the development of an inspection programme, written rules and regulations for working in all university facilities with industrial equipment, and a formal training programme that meets the requirements of all American National Standard Institute (ANSI) standards.

Defending its actions

In a statement, Yale University disputes the OSHA’s findings, saying that the lathe did meet ANSI standards and that the university provided both training and personal-protective equipment for the machines. The statement adds that professional staff inspected and maintained the machines regularly.

“Machine-tool training provided by Yale was extensive, consistently reinforced by professional staff and confirmed by Yale’s expert to be exemplary,” the statement reads. “Personal protective equipment was provided in the shop. The machine shop had room-access controls and students were repeatedly instructed not to use machinery without a buddy present.”

Conroy says that any implication that the university allowed students to work alone is false. He adds that the university set up a committee to review its safety policies immediately after the incident. “By the time the school year begins next month, we’ll have the policies and precautions in place,” Conroy tells “In particular, undergraduates will always have a monitor present when they work in the lab.”

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