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Contractor accused of breaking own safety rules

Health & Safety Executive (HSE) officials had warned a contractor in 2005 about the safety issue which caused the death of one of its employees in 2008, a court heard this week.

Failure to “enforce own rules”

Winchester Crown Court also heard that Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings (CGH) failed to enforce its own health and safety rules which were written by the company’s sole director Peter Eaton in 1992.

CGH is charged with unlawfully causing the death of 27-year-old junior geotechnical engineer Alexander Wright. It is the first company to be charged under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007. Firms found guilty face unlimited fines.

Wright died of traumatic asphyxia from the weight of heavy soil when the unsupported walls of a 3.8m deep trial pit collapsed as he stood in it collecting soil samples on 5 September 2008. The accident was at a site in Briscombe, Gloucestershire.

The prosecution’s opening statement this week centred on claims that the company routinely sent employees into unsupported trial pits over 1.2m deep.

It should have either acted to make all seven of the pits on site safe, or should have taken soil samples from the surface using a excavator bucket, said Mark Ellison QC, prosecuting.

Failure to follow standards

The court heard that in 2005 Eaton was contacted by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) after a former CGH employee expressed concern about having worked in trial pits for CGH without appropriate training. Eaton told the HSE in May 2005 that he would use shoring for all trial pits in future, or make sure their sides were battered back, Ellison said.

CGH’s own health and safety manual said “timbering or other support must be used” in trial pits over 1.2m deep, and that such pits should not be entered by employees when alone on site. The court heard that no record was found of CGH training employees doing trial pit work. Of six former employees interviewed, only one had read the company’s health and safety manual.

Ellison cited British Standard BS6031: Code of practice for earthworks, which states that “supports should be provided for all trenches above 1.2m deep”. He also referred to BS5930: Code of practice for site investigations which states: “Entry by personnel into unsupported trial pits deeper than 1.2m is not allowed for health and safety reasons.”

He also referred to the ICE’s Specification for Ground Investigation which says trial pits deeper than 1.2m should be dug by machine and excavated material brought to the surface for testing outside the pit.

Finished work alone

The court heard that CGH regularly used trial pits for soil surveys. Under Eaton’s direction, the seven pits on the Briscombe site were dug to a width of 610mm and at depths ranging between 2.6m and 3.8m. Wright was 1.8m tall, and died in the deepest pit. A ladder just 2.8m in length was used to enter and exit all the pits, the court heard.

The court heard that the ground on site was generally “clay-type soils”, which could easily have been brought up in large lumps in an excavator bucket to be sampled.

The accident happened at the end of a working day, when Eaton had left Wright alone on site after excavator driver Greg Hunt had left three pits open. Eaton told Wright to “finish up” alone, the prosecution said. Ellison said Eaton told police investigators that by this he meant tidying up and paperwork, and did not intend for Wright to continue working in the pits.

The court heard that Eaton routinely entered deep trial pits, usually via a ladder. On the day of the accident, Eaton entered one pit by convincing Hunt to lower him down as he stood on the arm of the excavator, Ellison said.

British Standards “glib assertion”

Ellison told the court that Eaton had told investigators he was aware of British Standards regarding pits deeper than 1.2m, but said this was a “glib assertion” as shallower pits could be dangerous and deeper ones could be safe. Eaton said he made risk assessments on site mentally, but did not write them down.

The court heard that on the day of the accident, Wright told site owner Mark Clubb that because CGH was a small firm he could enter trial pits without them being shored up, but if it were a larger firm “like Mowlem” it would not be allowed. Wright worked directly under Eaton, and the company employed eight people at the time of the accident.

The Crown Prosecution Service last October dropped gross negligence manslaughter charges against Eaton as an individual as illness made him too unwell to be tried (NCE 14 October 2010). The trial was originally due to start in February 2010 but was delayed because of the illness. CGH denies that it unlawfully killed Wright.

The trial continues with the prosecution calling its witnesses this week, after which the defence will make its opening statement.

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