Yale Student Killed in Lathe Accident

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Yale Student Killed in Lathe Accident

Yale Student Killed as Hair Gets Caught in Lathe (NY Times) – horrifying and so sad:

As a Yale undergraduate majoring in astronomy and physics, Michele Dufault was used to extreme physical environments. She worked on underwater robotic vehicles last summer as a fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. She also traveled to Houston as part of a team of undergraduates chosen by NASA to perform a plasma physics experiment in reduced gravity.

But it was a rudimentary machine — a lathe in a campus laboratory — that erased what everyone imagined to be a brilliant future for Ms. Dufault, who also found time to mentor girls interested in science and to play saxophone in Yale’s precision marching band.

On Tuesday, just weeks from graduating, she toiled late at night inside a machine shop in a chemistry lab, as she had for weeks while working on her senior thesis: investigating the possible use of liquid helium for detecting dark matter particles. Ms. Dufault, 22, was killed when her hair became caught in the lathe, whose rotating axis is used to hold materials like wood or metal being shaped.


58 thoughts on “Yale Student Killed in Lathe Accident

  1. Stacy Devino says:


    Basic shop safety is something that is occasionally forgotten and potential very harmful as in this unfortunate case. Though like may other people with long hair, I have caught it on things even while it was pulled back or a few stray hairs pop out despite your best efforts. It is just a good idea to only use large equipment when someone else is there or daylight hours. The pressures of college with majors in math/science/engineering (esp. at top tier schools) can make you do a lot of crazy or stupid things to get a task finished. I can think of no one in math/science/engineering that I went to college with who hadn’t pulled multiple all-nighters (no sleep) or used tools/resources/chemicals alone in empty labs like this promising student did. Maybe a re-alignment of goals or restriction on those items should be a standard enforcement across all universities and workplaces or researchers (no working with X after 10PM, two RFID tags must be wiped at the same time to open, etc.).

  2. Trey Long says:

    Wow, that really makes me sad today.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Sadly, there’s nothing we can do for her, except to use her death as a learning experience. Machines have no heart, they’ll kill you without a thought. It’s up to *you* to stay safe, and even more importantly, to keep your friends safe.

    So, please, remind your maker friends to wear eye protection, tie back their hair, roll up their sleeves and never work alone. Shop safety is everyone’s business. No joke.

    1. Stephen Woolhead says:

      When I was first learning to use lathes and mills, my teacher told us in very graphic terms what would happen if you got caught. It’s something that I think of whenever I use shop tools since, and I’m pretty sure it keeps me safe.

  4. Stacie Bilby says:

    I’m so sorry for this lovely young lady. May her family find peace and may her death be used as a warning to those who work around this equipment. May she have not died in vain.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Agreed. I’m about to build a machine shop, and now I’m going to rethink my dispositions extra carefully to make it as safe as I can. I may put her picture over my lathe to ensure I think first.

  5. Alfredo Jara says:

    Working with rotating machinery always demand the use of proper PPE, such as goggles and long sleeved shirts. For long haired people, use a hair net or something to keep the hair off the rotating parts. An unfortunate accident, for a person with a whole life ahead of her. As I also work with rotating machinery, I know how terrible some accidents are.
    So for all makers, PPE can prevent such accidents, and keep you whole for longer time.

    1. l says:

      long sleeves and gloves are for welding, not working with rotating machines.

    2. johngineer says:

      All the PPE in the world won’t save you if you’re tired and unfocused. Gear is not the answer, self-awareness is.

    3. Jeremy Cook says:

      You should keep your hands and arms clear around machines like this. No rings, long sleeved shirts, or loose gloves.

      Ugh, seems like so many accidents happen when people are tired. Sorry to hear about this.

  6. johngineer says:

    A very sad story, to be sure.

    While I am sure that she was wearing proper safety equipment and following procedures, the single greatest safety hazard with using any tool is fatigue. If she was working in the shop late at night, after what I imagine was a full day of classes and labs, she was likely quite tired, and perhaps not as focused as she might otherwise have been. I don’t know any of this for a fact, of course, but that is how it sounds.

    I believe the lesson here would be that you need to recognize when to just walk away. It can be really hard to make that decision, with deadlines and schedules hanging over your head, but in the end there’s no good excuse not to. And the consequences can be much too dire for you if you don’t.

  7. Anonymous says:

    What a horrible way to die. If she was a chem student, I’m guessing she had very limited experience with a lathe or any other power tools…

    1. johngineer says:

      The article said she had already completed a introductory shop course, and that nobody was allowed to use the shop without having completely such a course.

    2. TotalMonkey says:

      “…a Yale undergraduate majoring in astronomy and physics…”
      “…inside a machine shop in a chemistry lab…”

  8. Michael Andresen says:

    So sad :( R.I.P

    I am working with those tools at work every day, and even when everything seems to easy, this is a reminder that these machines are not toys.

    Everyone, be safe out there! :)

  9. Anonymous says:

    When you’re young, and tend to spend long nights working, particularly in college, it’s easy to make stupid mistakes due to fatigue. We teach pilots fatigue management, but I haven’t seen much on it in shop safety.

    It sounds like she was generally careful, and quite bright. I’m also generally careful and bright, so this is a good reminder that good procedures and habits are still necessary, even if you’re sure you know what you’re doing. Actually, exactly when you’re sure you know what you’re doing.

    She was very familiar with the lab, but sometimes familiarity combined with fatigue can breed complacency or just a momentary carelessness. Sometimes you get away with that, sometimes you don’t. I’ve done briefly stupid things in a machine shop, and have fortunately completely healed from the result, and learned the lesson permanently.

    A damn shame, she’s exactly the sort of person we need the most in this country.

  10. Ammar Al-Za'atreh says:

    If you didn’t post a snippet of her achievements and activities I would’ve probably thought of it as nothing more than a textbook scenario of dangers in the machine workshop, but now I feel like crying, seriously.

  11. Jan De Kock says:

    We had a similar accident in my high school about 10-15 years ago.

    A guys hair got stuck in the lathe, he was into hardrock/metal. He got away with half the hair on his head, the other half torn off, and an insane headache, and can live to tell the tale.

    Some people are just lucky I guess…

  12. Anonymous says:

    Whew, awful.

  13. Matthew Lloyd says:

    The article says her cause of death was “asphyxia due to neck compression.” It also states her body was found by other students coming to use the lab. This means she was alone in the shop and that her death was not instantaneous.

    I am currently attending school to become an Airframe & Powerplant Mechanic. We are persistently reminded of the virtues of teamwork and the dangers of working alone. Fatigue was surely a major factor in this accident, but she may have lived if she had company.

    I encourage all makers, menders, and craftsmen to consider the benefits and rewards of teamwork, especially when risks are high.

  14. Anonymous says:

    This is probably a good time for the magazine to spend some article space on going deeply into detail about tool safety. I know there are the “standard” warnings about reading all the manuals and understanding the risks before using any tools, but… maybe something more should be done since sometimes you’ll pick up a tool second hand, and the manual isn’t there. Some tools are ok to use gloves with, some are *never* ok to use gloves with. Some tools require you wear short sleeves, some require you to use *chaps*. Maybe it seems like a disconnected set of rules, but maybe Make can apply their powers of illustration to provide a guide. A pull-out poster would be awesome.

  15. James Patrick says:

    I wish this kind of thing didn’t happen to productive people.

  16. Christian Restifo says:

    I used to work for LTV Steel (when it was still in existence). We had a production line that made conduit, the shiny metal tube that electrical power cable is run through. I caught a guy stepping into the production line at a changeover station (where equipment moved tubes from one station to another) to “unjam” some stuck product. He had to move a safety chain to do it. I told him not to do it again.

    The next day he moved from my afternoon shift to the day shift. Two days later, he was dead. He got caught in the equipment doing what I told him not to do and died of “compressional asphyxiation.” Basically, the machine squeezed him so he couldn’t breathe. Coworkers found him when the production line started to jerk from jammed up product that was piling on top of him. They estimated he was like that for about 5-6 minutes.

    The equipment was in a place where most of the others could not see him. Basically, his job required him to essentially work “alone” out of sight of everyone else.

    I think this tragedy at Yale is the same thing: working alone kills. Despite being well rested, having the most modern safety equipment, and following all procedures, it’s possible to become injured. And the only thing that can help you then is another human being. Try finding a safety shower when fumes are choking you and making your eyes burn…….

    And it shows why we have rules. If you see someone violating those rules, call them out. If you’re a supervisor or teacher, write them up, no matter how much they complain or whine or threaten retaliation or a grievance. If I had done that, he might be alive today.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Was the machine guarded properly would be the obvious question.

  18. Anonymous says:

    very sad predicament, as any one of us could fall into the same trap. I remember going to the physics shop at 10 in the evening with a friend… the friend asking, “why do I need to be here?” and me replying, “I dunno, cause the rules say so ….?” thinking the whole time that I could do the job quicker by myself without anyone there. In retrospect, I could not have thanked them enough for being there and potentially saving my ass.

  19. Daniel Lidén says:

    Do we really need to post the exact details of this accident? It´s horrible enough that someone has died.

    1. Douglas A Stuart says:

      Yes. Yes we do.

      It will be even more horrible if someone else dies by making the same mistake.

  20. Pete Rippe says:

    anything that spins, including table saws: no gloves, hair, jewelry or long sleeves.

    many people are often tempted to wear gloves while using a table saw or when drilling metal, but this is a very bad idea. i’ll gladly pull out metal splinters from my fingers all day rather than trying to unwrap my arm from around the chuck. a table saw even at full speed can catch a glove and pull you in, although its the speed-down thats most dangerous (slow speed doesn’t cut as much as grab)

    in the end, it seems that all these school shops should have supervision anytime the shop is open, not just day. this could have been prevented if someone was there to speak up and have her put her hair up. there is a possibility too that she did have her hair up, but bent over too close

  21. jason says:

    my father retired from working at a fish meal factory in atlantic canada. the man then in charge of the company safety policy was previously involved in an industrial lathe accident, where he lost 3 of his fingers. what happend was, he was in a hurry, and just as he finished milling a piece, he shut down the machine, then grabbed a rag to wipe down the piece. problem was, the machine was still spinning due to inertia from its heavy mass and the rag got caught on the piece, pulled him in & wrung his hand out. sometimes it’s not just long sleeves & hair.

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Becky Stern is a Content Creator at Autodesk/Instructables, and part time faculty at New York’s School of Visual Arts Products of Design grad program. Making and sharing are her two biggest passions, and she's created hundreds of free online DIY tutorials and videos, mostly about technology and its intersection with crafts. Find her @bekathwia on YouTube/Twitter/Instagram.

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