A Grim Reminder of the Importance of Machine Shop Safety

The tragic death of Yale University physics student Michele Dufault is a grim reminder of the importance of basic safety in the machine shop:

A Yale University student nearing graduation was killed inside a school chemistry lab when her hair was pulled into a piece of machine-shop equipment, school officials said Wednesday.

Michele Dufault, a senior majoring in physics and astronomy, died Tuesday night after her hair became caught in a fast-spinning lathe, university President Richard Levin said. Her body was found by other students who had been working in the building, he said.

“This is a true tragedy,” Levin wrote in a message to Yale students and faculty.

It is a true tragedy, but for those of us who have been involved in machine shops, an avoidable one.

Right: a very large lathe at my old family business; this photo has regaled my page Think Before You Convert for many years.

Having been involved in machine shops of one kind or another most of my life, and done some machining myself, the first two rules working around metalworking equipment (and especially lathes, such as Dufault was working on) is a) remove all of your jewellery and b) tie back long hair so that neither of these gets caught in the machinery.  (The next rule: wear the safety glasses.)  In some cases machine shops have required employees with long hair to use a hair net, such as you see in food manufacturing plants.

The curriculum for mechanical engineering I went through at Texas A&M in the 1970’s included two semesters of machine shop, where these safety rules were drilled into the class the first day.  (Most mechanical engineering curricula have dispensed with the machine shop requirement, and this process was ongoing in the 1970’s; A&M was slow to make this change.)  My second semester partner (whose father was head of the Petroleum Engineering department) was an excellent machinist, and tied his hair back in a ponytail.

Unfortunately in the rush of new technologies much of the “old school” methods have been forgotten, with tragic results.  In the machine shop, as everywhere else, SAFETY FIRST!

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