OSHA vs Yale on Michele Dufault’s death, also a note about round-ups

Last week, the Associated Press broke news about the results of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration‘s investigation into Yale University undergraduate student Michele Dufault’s death in a lathe accident earlier this year. Dufault died of asphyxia from neck compression after her hair got caught in a lathe when she was working alone in a machine shop.

OSHA can’t issue citations or fines unless there was an employer-employee relationship, which there wasn’t in Dufault’s case. OSHA investigated Dufault’s death because the Connecticut office believed the incident might indicate hazards to employees.

According to the letter OSHA sent to Yale (pdf), the agency’s investigation found that:

  • The lathe was a Harrison-Claussing lathe manufactured in 1962 and had been at Yale at least since 2000.
  • The lathe did not have a physical safeguard that met American National Standard Institute (ANSI) standards.
  • The university did not address machine safeguarding during safety inspections, did not complete or document personal protective equipment assessments, and did not post machine shop rules and regulations.

Yale’s response to the letter says (pdf):

  • OSHA references an outdated ANSI standard. The current standard says that safeguarding can be met by “safe work procedures, preventive maintenance, training, retraining, personal protective equipment and warning signs.”
  • Yale believes it met those requirements and other OSHA criticisms through student training and shop oversight.

Yale has also updated its student shop policies and practices (pdf). In a note to the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety e-mail list, Peter Reinhard, Yale’s director of environmental health & safety, flagged a new tool/equipment hazard classification system that the university has developed. The system categorizes equipment on a scale from one to five, from low-power hand/small bench tools (e.g. palm sanders or soldering irons) to large industrial tools (e.g. full-sized metal lathes or table saws). The hazard classification governs the conditions under which undergraduates, graduate students, or postdocs may use the equipment. Everyone must do a safety review with a shop supervisor and maybe a faculty adviser if they’re planning to use equipment rated category two or higher.

What do Safety Zone readers think? Is the hazard classification system a common-sense approach to monitoring shop work? If you don’t like it, what do you think is better? Anyone have knowledge of industrial shop policies to which we can compare?

Lastly, a note about round-ups: A family vacation rounded out with a child with pneumonia, followed by the first week of school and (next week) the Denver ACS meeting have led to an overwhelming collection of safety news and I’m throwing in the towel for August. We’ll begin afresh in September! If I’ve missed something that you think deserves mention here, though, feel free to let me knowfeel free to let me know.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. So Yale is going to continue to let students work in the machine shop alone in the middle of the night then? I’ve never worked anywhere that has done that.

  2. @UI, Yale’s new policy says:

    All student shops will have means for restricting tool access, either by room-level electronic access control systems or electronic or mechanical controls on individual tools. Where roomlevel electronic control is used, the system will be standardized on the University’s ID card access control system. Shop supervisors and monitors will use a control reader which toggles the door open when they swipe in and locks the door when they swipe out. Students with access via the buddy system must swipe in separately, via the second reader. Both badge reads will be recorded and held in access control records indefinitely.

    Undergraduates will not have electronic access to Category 3-5 shops; a shop supervisor (for Category 3-5) or monitor (for Category 3-4) must be present to let them in. For Category 3-5
    shops, the second reader allows buddy-system access to graduate students, post-doctoral students and other authorized non-undergraduates during normal operating hours when a monitor or
    supervisor is not present. A system is being developed to communicate to Security what level of entry authorization individuals have to each shop.

    Fatigue is a significant source of risk and no work may be performed in shop Categories 2-5 by anyone after midnight.

  3. Problems like this extend well beyond machine shops and Yale. How many grad students and postdocs at major research institutions slog away in their labs well into the wee hours of the night? Tired minds and bodies, in the presence of high-powered lasers, hazardous chemicals or a simple lathe, equals a whole bunch of accidents waiting to happen. Do PIs care enough about the safety issues involving their expendable workforce? Where do Ph.D. students stand in terms of employer-employee relationships?! I suppose these ‘trivial’ matters take a back seat as long as the overall lab productivity remains high and the Nobel Prize is in sight.

  4. First of all, my condolences to the family. That being said, OSHA had no business investigating this accident, not within their jurisdiction. Their claim that they would inspect because an employee working at the lab could have been exposed to the hazard is reallllly stretching it. If an old lady slips on a spilled soda ta the mall, does that give OSHA the right to inspect every business at the mall? They must have been under a lot of political pressure to inspect the lab.

  5. @OSHA Expert: I think most people would agree that slipping on spilled soda is a far cry from dying in an industrial machine accident.