Depending on your preferences, walking down to the basement of Exley Science Center for lab once a week can be either tedious or invigorating. Regardless, lab classes should not be taken lightly. The biology, chemistry, and physics laboratories have the potential to be some of the most dangerous places on campus. Students are faced with toxic or caustic chemicals, dangerous instruments, and numerous possibilities for experiments to go wrong—and with so many undergraduate and graduate students taking or teaching labs, accidents can happen at any time.
In fact, such an accident happened quite recently. Michele DuFault, who was a senior Astronomy and Physics major at Yale University, died in an accident at the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory (SCL) on Wednesday, April 13. DuFault was working in the laboratory’s machine shop, and her hair became trapped in a wood lathe, a machine used to mold objects with a rotating mechanism. According to the
Yale Daily News, investigations have not revealed any conclusions regarding the circumstances of DuFault’s death and the safety of the lab she was working in. However, Yale has already responded to the tragedy with altered safety practices, modified hours, and more vigilant monitoring for all labs, as well as re-training for anyone working in a lab, shop, and even in certain art or theater departments.
Both Yale and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are running investigations into the incident. OSHA is a federal agency that formulates and implements regulations with which all laboratories must comply. Thus, Wesleyan is also under OSHA jurisdiction and subject to OSHA guidelines.
In light of the recent tragedy, the Wesleyan labs have garnered increased attention on campus, with students wondering how safe their labs are compared to the SCL. The University has investigated its machine shop and other labs on campus.
“Wesleyan also has a student machine shop, which is controlled by a committee of faculty and staff that oversee the use of the shop,” WIlliam Nelligan, Director of Environmental Health, Safety, and Sustainability, said. “They convened a safety review and have decided the shop is safe to continue operation. We will increase access controls, but they have always trained students to operate the equipment safely.”
All labs, not just machine shops, must follow strict rules. The University’s Chemical Hygiene Plan, which is available online, is 85 pages long, and covers topics like chemical safety training, personal hygiene, and how to respond to both minor and major accidents. There is also an entire section on Chemical Toxicology. Although it has not been revised since 2005, Nelligan said that it is regularly reevaluated.
“The Chemical Hygiene Plan is reviewed annually as well as after any major incidents to ensure we are keeping up with our safety practices,” Nelligan said. “Wesleyan labs follow all OSHA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines and regulations when it comes to lab safety as well as adopting many practices that are more stringent than OSHA or EPA Regulations.”
Nelligan is in charge of making sure that the University laboratories are run safely and effectively. According to him, Wesleyan’s record of lab safety is almost spotless.
“Wesleyan’s lab safety record is very good, actually,” Nelligan said. “In the 15 years that I have worked at Wesleyan we have had only one undergraduate accident that required hospitalization. Wesleyan has relatively few injuries in the laboratories, other than the occasional minor laceration that requires a band aid. Larger accidents are very rare; for instance, the fire we sustained in April 2009 was by far the biggest single lab safety event in my history. The fire was discovered by a graduate student who called 911, just as he was trained to do. He recognized the fact that the fire was bigger than he could handle and he responded accordingly.”
Nelligan stressed that he and his team are very focused on making sure Wesleyan students and faculty are educated about their lab practices. In particular, they stress how people should respond to an accident, disaster, or malfunction, and that they should acknowledge when their environment is no longer safe.
“I went through chemical safety training with Bill Nelligan,” Visiting Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Biochemistry Michelle Murolo said. “There’s a chemical hygiene safety class. A lot of it, too, is understanding what chemicals are dangerous and hazardous, and that I stick by the protocols if I use anything hazardous.”
Although some laboratory rules are more complex, such as those governing the use of specific chemicals, lab safety is largely governed by common sense.
“Follow the rules, don’t take shortcuts, and never work alone are the things that will keep students safe,” Nelligan said. “Our approach to lab safety has always been to educate students, faculty, and staff on life safety regulations, and to ensure compliance. This is especially important in the research labs, where experiments are designed and implemented for the very first time. What you should know about safety in labs generally is: don’t go in unless you have received formal training on the hazards that exist. No one is allowed to work in our labs without training.”
No matter how much effort is put into keeping students and faculty safe, however, there is no way to prevent all potential disasters.
“The unfortunate accident at Yale does show that accidents do happen, even when you are trained,” Nelligan said.
Nonetheless, Nelligan is very confident in the ability of University faculty to act responsibly and safely in their labs.
“Our labs are very safe. Our entire faculty embraces safety as a culture and factor in risk when they design a course,” he said. “We will continue to monitor our safety practices to ensure that your education at Wesleyan yields you the necessary skills to continue your field of study in the safest way possible. Most accidents are preventable. We train people to recognize when the activity they are doing falls outside the normal risk scale, and that helps to prevent more accidents.”