Recent Yale death triggers machine safety re-evaluation
Published: Thursday, April 28, 2011
Updated: Friday, April 29, 2011 12:04
The recent death of a Yale University student in a university laboratory has prompted institutions nationwide to reassess machine shop safety protocol. For its part, Tufts officials remain confident that its existing safety policies will guard against such tragedies on the Medford/Somerville campus.
Yale senior Michele Dufault died April 12 while using a machine in a chemistry laboratory. An investigation determined Dufault's death was caused by asphyxiation after her hair became caught in the fast-spinning components of a lathe, a machine that shapes material, such as wood or metal, and choked her to death.
According to various news reports, the Yale accident occurred around 2 a.m., when Dufault was alone in a campus lab. The university is now conducting a review of its machine safety procedures and policies.
In the wake of the incident, Tufts has determined its own current safety policies, which impose strict regulations on student machine use, to be sufficient precautions for its on-campus machine shops.
"Tufts has a very good record on student injuries associated with shop work," Stephen Larson, director of Tufts Environmental Health and Safety (TEHS) said. "One of the reasons there hasn't been a fatality or life-changing injury has to be more than luck. Tufts buys good equipment, trains faculty, staff and students, sets up shops correctly, and … we're not allowing students to work alone."
The Yale tragedy has prompted Tufts administrators to ask departments to re-examine safety protocols.
"The senior administration and academic administration asked me to review what's happening today with respect to shop safety in Medford," Larson said. "We reviewed and discussed with shop supervisors. We made clear what each supervisor and department is doing in terms of safety."
TEHS staff, Larson said, conduct routine inspections of each campus machine shop and laboratory at least once per year.
There are three machine shops on the Medford/Somerville campus. The Bray Laboratory Building and a small shop that belongs to the theater department are open to students authorized to use the machines. The third, located in the Science and Technology Center (Sci-Tech), may only be operated by professional machinists.
Access to the Bray Machine Shop is limited to daytime hours, and machine shop coordinator Jim Hoffman monitors each machine.
A variety of Jumbos, including undergraduates, graduate students and faculty of mechanical engineering, as well as groups such as the Hybrid Racing Team and the Robotics Club, use the machines under Hoffman's supervision, the only time such machines are accessible, he said.
"When Jim leaves, there's a panel that controls all power for all the machines, so he powers down the whole room," Simon Metcalf, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, said. "You can't use any equipment when he leaves."
When the shop is available to students during the day, student use is restricted to those who have been trained by shop staff on safe operation, whether in a class or personal instruction, according to Mechanical Engineering Coordinator Vincent Miraglia. Hoffman said he retains full discretionary power over equipment use.
"If someone looks intimidated by the size of the machine or the noise, or looks nervous, I won't let him on a machine," Hoffman said.
Miraglia said all prospective shop users are required to attend shop safety lectures, go over lab safety guidelines and take a test. Finally, each student receives hands-on instruction tailored to individual machines, including a manual lathe and milling machine. Ultimately, however, students must internalize the safety precautions and hold themselves accountable, Miraglia said.
"I've seen so many accidents in my life — you have to be responsible for yourself," he said.
Larson believes that Tufts is taking every proactive measure possible to ensure safety in its machine labs, but he admits that accidents are never fully preventable.
"There are no absolutes," he said.
"We have a good safety record because of our strict adherence to rules," Miraglia said. The shop has had one minor accident, a cut hand requiring stitches, during his 33-year tenure, he said.
"Tufts has effectively shielded itself from what happened at Yale," Metcalf said.
The most sophisticated machine work on campus happens at the Tufts University Machine Shop in Sci-Tech, run by Shop Supervisor Denis Dupuis and machinist Scott MacCorkle. The shop focuses on high-energy physics projects but also creates pieces for different constituencies on campus, such as chemical engineering and psychology, or other institutions like Harvard University and Brandeis University. Students are not allowed in this shop, according to MacCorkle.
Tufts has both manual and computer-operated lathes on campus. The Computer Numerical Control lathe located in Sci-Tech, acquired by Tufts last year, is different from the manual machine that killed Dufault, as it is modernized for safety standards with a protective barrier between the operator and the mechanism to prevent most dangers.
MacCorkle warned that these computer-run machines are safer, but not perfect safeguards.
"If the wrong person is using these machines, they're all equally dangerous," MacCorkle said.
Both MacCorkle and Metcalf emphasized that no matter what policies are in place, there is the unavoidable chance that an accident could happen anytime.
"These are very, very powerful tools," Metcalf said. "It's often easy to forget that tools you're working with will cut your arm off in a blink of an eye."
"The one time you're rushing, you're trying to get something done, that's when accidents happen," MacCorkle said.