Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Death at Yale

Back in April, a Yale undergraduate was killed in a physics workshop when her hair was caught in a lathe and strangled her. I go on and on about lab safety on this blog, in my lab, and in talks and lectures because the consequences of negligence are very real.  The Paleo Portal Health and Safety webpage was developed in part from the safety section of our lab manual, and incorporated many other lab's practices. Her accident could have been avoided by following at least three of our safety rules at VPL. First, no one but myself and our museum exhibits designer are allowed to use large power tools, including but not limited to: the bench grinder, drill press, electric miter saw, metal chop saw, Skil circular saw, and welding equipment. This by itself would have almost completely eliminated the risk of a student being hurt. Second, and obviously, all long hair, jewelry, loose clothing, etc, is required to be securely bound and out of risk for being caught in tools. Third, no one is allowed to work with any of these tools alone.

The major limiting factor in the effectiveness of these policies is enforcement. When physical access to the area can not be prevented for what ever practical reasons, tools can and should be disabled through lock out systems to guarantee that only authorized personnel can activate them. I'm very disappointed with the reaction of some members of the educational community interviewed from other institutions in the Wall Street Journal article linked above. Particularly the voices from one of my former employers, the University of Chicago. According to the WSJ article, physics professor Stephan Meyer "echoed concerns over eliminating one of the most fruitful work periods for undergraduates. 'I don't do anything during the day because I'm talking to people,' he said. 'Work happens at night and that's when research happens." Another UChicago faculty member agrees, again from the article-

"One really worries that a story like this gets the press all over it and all of a sudden undergraduates can't use the shop in the evening hours which is the only time they can really devote to the work because they're busy with courses during the day," said University of Chicago physics professor Mark Oreglia. Unfettered access to lab equipment "is something that the undergraduates really benefit from," he said. He recalled spending long hours at the machines as a student, toiling by himself on projects into the night."

My response to him? Too fucking bad. When he is in the role of explaining to a dead students parents, university lawyers, and the media why his laboratory policy was not one of "Safety First", his opinion might be changed. Working late at night, while exhausted, and under pressure is THE TIME when someone is most likely to make mistakes and cut corners. Add youth into the equation and the students are probably safer drinking and driving at 2:30am on a weekend. To defend such practices is irresponsible (I'd say grossly negligent), idiotic, and devoid of an understanding of how the real world works. This is a fundamental problem in academic culture, the real heart of the issue, safety accountability in research labs. This Nature News article discuss this in detail, and I suggest should be required reading as part of any lab orientation.

1 comment:

Traumador said...

I was astounded to read those opinions (I wisely opened the link before continuing with your essay here).

Do they seriously believe being allowed to burn the candle at both ends is more important than safety?!?

I agree with you completely!

I thought workplace safety was an issue people took to lightly, but in comparison academic safety is in the stone age according to that article...