Lab Safety Assessed in Wake of Tragedy

Harvard’s experimental laboratories are planning to strengthen lab safety practices following the death of Yale senior Michele Dufault in a chemistry lab machine shop.

Dufault, who was reportedly working on her senior thesis project at the time of her death, died when her hair accidentally caught in a lathe—an instrument used to shape wood.

“This is a tragic accident,” said Mathieu P. Lalonde, science safety officer in the Harvard Chemistry Department. “This can very well happen here ... How can we ensure that it does not?”

The Chemistry Department’s lab safety office has re-evaluated its procedures since Dufault’s death on Tuesday in an effort to maximize the safety of students, staff, and faculty.

Lalonde said that the Chemistry Department’s shop is primarily used by graduate students and employees and plays no role in the undergraduate curriculum.

Nevertheless, the machine shop underwent inspection shortly after news of the Yale incident.

Plans to fund the installation of card swipe detectors are underway, and personnel restrictions on the machine shop may also be imposed, Lalonde said.

Lab safety personnel in the physical sciences departments said that safety regulations in laboratories, which are mandated by the University, historically have been strictly enforced.

“We have a very strict and stringent rule for students who work after hours,” said Stanley Cotreau, machine shop manager and instructor in the Physics Department.

The University’s Environmental Health and Safety operations require basic safety measures, such as tying up long hair and wearing personal protective equipment, for all individuals who are working in a lab setting.

The regulations also stipulate that undergraduates may not work in a lab setting without supervision.

“We enforce that [rule] very strictly,” said Lalonde, adding that undergraduates who violate this rule are subject to suspension from access to lab research facilities.

Violations in the Physics Department machine shop are also handled seriously, Cotreau said. Lab safety personnel periodically survey the machine shop, which also has camera surveillance on site. Students who do not adhere to lab safety rules are subject to card access removal.

Jonathan D. Lee ’11, who works in an organic synthesis lab in the department, said Harvard has high standards for lab safety.

“The lab safety at Harvard is pretty good,” he said, adding that departmental courses he has taken tended to highlight the importance of caution in the laboratory.

While the Chemistry Department has not seen any deaths or serious injuries resulting from lab accidents, the department is still taking significant steps to improve safety-training instruction.

“Lab safety is paramount. If we don’t have safe labs, then we’re putting everyone in danger,” Cotreau said.

—Staff writer Gautam S. Kumar contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Amy Guan can be reached at guan@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu

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