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UPDATE: Yale student dies in chemistry lab accident

dufault.JPGA Yale University student died late Tuesday in an accident at the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory in New Haven, Connecticut. The New Haven Register reports that Michele Dufault was killed when her hair was pulled into a lathe in the machine shop, where students can build their own scientific equipment.

Dufault was a senior from Scituate, Massachusetts, majoring in astronomy and physics. In a statement, the university called Dufault “an exceptional young woman, an outstanding student and young scientist, a dear friend and a vibrant member of this community.”

Dufault was reportedly working late on her senior project, but it was not clear whether she was there alone or who called in the emergency (note: new details released by Yale – see update below – indicate that Dufault was found by fellow students, who notified authorities). The Register reports that New Haven fire department responded to a call at 2:33 a.m. and found Dufault sitting at the lathe with her hair “wrapped around part of the machine.” The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported that it has no jurisdiction over the matter because Dufault was a student and not an employee. Yale is reportedly investigating the incident; officials there did not immediately return phone calls.

Dufault was a summer fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution last year and has participated in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program as part of the Yale Drop Team.


OSHA has now said it will investigate the accident.

Yale University President Richard Levin provided additional details about the incident and the university’s investigation in a statement released Wednesday evening. The university has training programs for students who use such equipment, Levin said, but access will be limited and machines will be monitored pending an internal review of all such safety procedures. Levin’s statement is posted in its entirety below.

Vice President Lorimer, Dean Miller, and I have met with the family of Michele Dufault to extend our deepest sympathy and to offer all the assistance we can possibly provide at their most difficult time of grief. Our hearts go out to Michele’s family and friends. Mr. and Mrs. Dufault will be returning to campus before the end of the semester for a Memorial Service to honor Michele.

This is a true tragedy. 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. Her body was found by other students who had been working in the building. They called the police, who responded immediately.

Michele was an exceptional science student who was pursuing a B.S. in astronomy and physics. 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 safety of our students is a paramount concern. The University has programs to train students before they use power equipment. Nonetheless, 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 lead the review. 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.


President Levin


  1. Report this comment

    momsy said:

    My heart breaks for this young lady and her family. She was doing the right things and working hard to achieve. We all have suffered a loss today. Kind regards to her family and friends.

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    Brian said:

    RIP. It’s sad when the pressures of meeting deadlines pushes students to take risks like working well into the night… 🙁

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    Richardhg said:

    I worked in a metalworking shop when I was 20, as a machine operator. There were strict standards, and they were adhered to. The company had liability insurance, and a great safety record, running furnaces, pouring metal ingots, and running then through processing (rolling, guillotining, machining, etc).

    So one thing we all had was a great respect for the kind of horsepower these machines had, and just how fast you could lose an arm, or be dead.

    So you could look at this as a failure of Yale to insist on a dress code in their machine shop.

    Or you could also look at this as the Darwin Principle at work.

    Depends on whether you think your life should be run by some authority or other, telling you exactly what to do in every situation, or alternatively, expecting you to have some fundamental survival instinct and not do something as damn stupid as operate heavy machinery without a hairnet.

    When I see this kind of stupidity, I shake my head in sorrow, and just move on.

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    CH3COO- said:

    While this event is undoubtedly tragic and made even more tragic by how preventable it was, we cannot idealize her in the aftermath. It is a learning opportunity had she followed simple safety precautions, such as putting her hair back and not working alone,Michele would likely be alive. I send my condolences to her family and friends. Let us hope we may learn from this moving forward.

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