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OSHA Criticizes Yale’s Safety Standards after Student Tragedy

Yale University

According the New York Daily News, a Yale University student was killed in an accident at a chemistry lab when her hair was drawn into a piece of lab machinery.  According to official reports, when fire firefighters responded around 2:30 a.m., they discovered the Michele Dufault sitting at a lathe with her hair entangled in the machine.  She apparently died after her hair was caught in the lathe, a rotating machine that spins rapidly to shape various materials.

Ms. Dufault studied astronomy and was due to graduate next month.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has reported that the lathe that killed Ms. Dufault was missing required safeguards and that the accident highlighted several issues with Yale’s system of safety policies.

Interestingly, OSHA didn’t fine Yale for the accident, citing that it lacked jurisdiction.  Essentially, there is no employer-employee relationship between graduate students working in labs and the University that governs them.  The murky status of graduate students laboring for universities has come under scrutiny of late.  There have been several movements by graduate students to seek unionized status when they are forced to labor as teachers as requirement of a scholarship package.

Nevertheless, OSHA did issue a letter obtained by the Associated Press that found many problems and ongoing safety issues in the machine shop where Ms. Dufault, who was an undergraduate, died.

According to OSHA, the lathe was built in 1962 and lacked a means to turn power off in an emergency.  In addition, warnings and rules for operating the equipment were not posted.  Most importantly, students should never work alone on dangerous machinery an should be trained in a formal safety program.

Ultimately, this unfortunate tragedy brings up a number of important issues that are of interest to labor rights activists and advocates for workers’ compensation: is a student injured while completing required work eligible for compensation?  What about graduate students laboring on behalf of a university?

If you are a worker or student worker injured in a situation where the obligations of your employer or higher leaning institution are unclear, be sure to first seek medical assistance.  Then seek out the experienced Washington workers’ compensation lawyers at Emery Reddy for guidance.




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