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From the Director: Tragedy at Yale

(Photo - Persis Drell)
(Photo by Brad Plummer.)

Many of you may have seen the news story. Michele Dufault, a Yale senior majoring in astronomy and physics, was found dead early Wednesday after her hair got caught in a lathe in a laboratory accident.

This tragedy really hit home for me. I spent many hours as a graduate student in the student machine shop at UC Berkeley. I had waist-length hair at the time, usually pulled back in a pony tail. I had been trained to use the machines so I knew that I shouldn't wear any jewelry in the shop, I should tie my hair back, I should avoid wearing loose clothing, and use proper eye protection.

In the early days, I was terrified of the machines and was extremely careful about following all of the rules. But as I became a better and more experienced machinist, I remember being less afraid and probably got sloppier about following the rules. I'm sure I started to cut corners a bit when I was in a hurry. Then a friend got hurt working alone late one night. She lost one of her front teeth when she forgot to remove the chuck key on the lathe and it flew up into her face. Luckily, this was not a life-threatening injury, but it taught me a lesson. While work planning and control was not something I consciously thought about in those days, as a result of that accident, I found myself doing a better job of thinking through the hazards of my work before I executed it and thinking about how to do future activities even more safely. It renewed my commitment to the discipline of working safely in the shop, and above all following the simple guidelines that helped ensure my safety and the safety of those working around me.

Today, I look at this tragedy at Yale from a larger perspective—as director of a lab where there are many pieces of equipment whose operation could lead to injury if proper safety measures are not followed. I want to ensure that nothing similar to what happened at Yale ever happens here. For those of you who work in our shops or work with dangerous equipment in your laboratories here at SLAC, please take a minute, reflect on this terrible accident, and think about your own work habits. Please don't let experience and familiarity ever make you complacent. It is also prudent practice not to work alone in an environment where there are significant hazards.

For those of you who supervise students, postdocs and staff who do hazardous work, whether it's in a machine shop or a laser laboratory, please talk to your students and staff. Ensure they are properly trained on the equipment they are using. Review the hazards of what they do, and how they are mitigating those hazards. Above all, remind them how important their safety is to you. If you or any of your staff have questions about how to perform your work safely, the Environment, Safety and Health Division and subject matter experts are here to help and support you.

In time we may learn more about what led to Michele Dufault's untimely death. Let's do all we can to keep a similar tragedy from ever happening at SLAC.

—Persis Drell
SLAC Today, April 15, 2011