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Science Careers Blog

April 13, 2011

Another Apparently Avoidable Death at a University Research Facility

I had hoped never again to have to write about a needless death at a university research facility.  But only two years after Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji succumbed to burns sustained at UCLA in the lab of Prof. Patrick Harran comes the hideous news that Michele Dufault, a Yale senior, died when, according to the New Haven Register, "her hair got caught in a lathe" while she was working on the machine at the university's Sterling Chemical Laboratory.  

"Her hair got caught in a lathe"?!!?  Did I possibly read that right?  The smiling young woman in the photo accompanying this horrifying article does have wavy tresses that fall below her shoulders. The clear implication of the article is that she either did not have her hair securely tied up over covered by a cap while she worked on a piece of potentially lethal industrial machinery or, if she did, that it came undone.  Working on a lathe with anything loose about the body would certainly seem to violate the basic safety standards that would be enforced by any organization aiming to provide a safe workplace.  

Sheri Sangji died because of elementary safety and training violations that caused the California Division of Occupational Health and Safety (Cal/OSHA) to cite and fine UCLA.  That university has since improved safety standards and even begun a center to study lab safety. Did the same horrible, totally unnecessary fate -- death by lax safety and training standards -- also befall Michele Dufault?  It seems likely.  And did this catastrophe arise from the same root cause, the careless disregard for the dangers of research procedures that safety experts say is extremely widespread in academic science?  I wouldn't be surprised.

And here is something else that is appalling: "A spokesman for the Bridgeport office of the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration said they have no jurisdiction over the incident as it is not a workplace incident involving a paid employee," the Register reports.  Yes, you read that right, too:  By law, OSHA only protects people who collect a paycheck, not those who pay tuition.  Sheri was an employee, which at least gave Cal/OSHA jurisdiction to get to the bottom of what happened.  Michele Dufault, as a student, had no such protection.  What's more, the Register continues, "city officials do not inspect laboratories and workplace safety at Yale, which has its own occupational safety division."  If so, what kind of standards does it enunciate, and how are they enforced?

So, what agency is going to investigate this catastrophe?  Will anyone pay a price?  We will try to find out. This reporter had nightmares while working on the Sheri Sangji case.  It appears that she can expect more reporting this one.

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