Thayer evaluates machine safety
By Claire Groden, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, April 19, 2011
The recent death of Yale University senior Michele Dufault in a university machine shop has prompted Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering machine shop to re-examine its own safety policies, according to shop manager and instructor Kevin Baron. Due to a similar but much less severe incident two years ago in which a student’s hair became tangled in equipment, the Dartmouth shop already has safety policies in place that guard against such accidents in the future, Baron said.
While working at the Yale machine shop sometime before 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Dufault’s hair was caught in a metal lathe, a large machine that rotates a piece around a stationary tool, according to the Yale Daily News.
Although Dartmouth’s shop temporarily suspended evening hours immediately following the Yale incident, the staff decided to instead increase the number of teaching assistants present from one to two during evening hours, Baron said.
A similar accident occurred two years ago when Claire McKenna ’10 brought her head too close to a drill and her hair became entangled, according to Garrett Simpson ’11, who has served as a student staff member at the shop since Summer 2009.
Although McKenna “hit her head on the machine,” she was not seriously injured, according to Simpson. McKenna was “operating in a crowded shop” at the time of her incident, Baron said.
McKenna did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Several Thayer machine shop staff members and students said that while Dufault’s accident represented a worst nightmare for those who work with shop machinery, policies adopted following McKenna’s incident make such a situation highly unlikely at the College.
Students, for example, must now tie back long hair and wear hats “no matter if [they’re] bald,” Simpson said. The shop dedicates a hook on the hat rack to hair ties in order to further encourage students with long hair to secure it before using machinery, according to Simpson.
The shop is always overseen by students and professional staff during the day, Baron said. Student staff members supervise to the shop during the evening hours of 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., when experienced students come in to work by appointment, according to Baron. One of the main roles of certain engineering courses’ teaching assistants is to ensure safety in the shop, he said.
Student staff members ensure that those who need help do not operate machinery alone and have experienced students on hand to answer questions, according to Baron.
“We run our machine shop with almost one-on-one coverage,” he said. Before students can become staff members, they must have two semesters of experience working in the shop and demonstrate different machine shop skills, Baron said. Students also must attend a safety orientation taught by professional technical staff or an experienced teaching assistant, according to Simpson. John Mackay ’11, a teaching assistant at the shop, said he heard about Dufault’s death on his first day as a staff member at the shop. The tragedy “snapped people back into really focusing on [safety]” and has made students even more cautious than before, Mackay said.
Natalie Burkhard ’12, who worked as a machine shop teaching assistant during Winter term, said she does not think that students in the shop are at risk. Although the “norm of asking for help” in the shop ensures a safe working area, the incident did hit “a little close to home,” she said.
Policies regarding whether students are allowed round-the-clock access to machine shops varies from school to school, according to the Yale Daily News.
Stanford University’s student machine shop usage policy is similar to Yale’s — certified students with keycards can access the equipment at any time of the night, the News reported. Stanford, however, may re-evaluate its access policy following the recent tragedy, Karlheinz Merkle, a shop supervisor at Stanford’s physics department shop, said in an interview with the News.
The University of Michigan, for example, strictly enforces a buddy system, according to Bob Johnston, director of Facilities and Operations in the university’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts.
University of Michigan has not altered its current safety policies since learning of Dufault’s death.
“We don’t know enough about it, but we will use it to see if we can learn from it,” he said in an interview with The Dartmouth.