(Updated) The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the chemistry lab where Yale senior Michele Dufault died Tuesday night, an agency spokesman said Wednesday.
OSHA spokesman Ted Fitzgerald said the agency will look at whether there were safety or health rules broken. In an email to the campus Wednesday morning, Linda Koch Lorimer, Yale’s vice president and secretary, said Dufault had been killed in “what appears to have been a terrible accident involving a piece of equipment in the student machine shop in Sterling Chemistry Laboratory.”
Dufault was a senior in Saybrook College.
Fitzgerald said that OSHA officials were initially unsure whether the agency has jurisdiction over the Yale lab, since Dufault was a student, not a paid employee. But OSHA has determined that it can launch an investigation, since the lab does employ technicians and faculty members also work there.
OSHA inspectors would be at the lab beginning Wednesday, Fitzgerald said. While he couldn’t discuss the specifics of the case, a typical OSHA investigation of an accident—particularly a death—involves a combination of on-site inspections and a review of documents and records. These investigations must be wrapped up within six months, he said.
If OSHA finds violations, the agency could cite Yale, and potentially fine the university.
According to the chemistry department’s website, access to the “state-of-the-art” machine shop is “strictly limited to those who have completed the shop course.”
In an email Wednesday, Yale President Rick Levin said he is conducting his own review of safety protocols.
“I have initiated 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. This includes arts as well as science facilities.”
Steven Girvin, Deputy Provost for Science and Technology, will head up the review, Levin said. “Until the review is completed, Yale College will limit undergraduate access to facilities with power equipment to hours that will be specified by the end of the week; monitors will be present at these times in all such locations.”
Levin filled in a few more details about Dufault’s death.
“Last night, Michele’s hair got caught in a lathe as she worked on a project in the student machine shop in the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory,” Levin wrote. “Her body was found by other students who had been working in the building. They called the police, who responded immediately.”
Dufault was pursuing a B.S. in astronomy and physics, according to Levin. “She also had keen interest in oceanography and was intending to undertake work in that field after graduation. She was an enthusiastic saxophonist in the Yale Band, and a widely admired member of the Saybrook College community.”
The state medical examiner told the New Haven Register that the cause of death was asphyxiation.