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Pit death geologist 'knew of risks'

The firm director employing a junior geotechnical engineer who died in a pit when it collapsed in on him told a court yesterday he was “absolutely confident” the dead man knew what he was doing.

Peter Eaton was the director of Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings when Alexander Wright, 27, was alone in the 3.84m deep unsupported pit when it caved in at a development site in Brimscombe Lane, near Stroud, Gloucs, in September 2008.

In a DVD police interview shown to the jury at Winchester Crown Court, Eaton said he had been using the same procedures to dig trial pits since 1971 and he admitted he had overall responsibility for the health and safety of his staff.

He said his health and safety booklet had been written in 1992 and he had been “threatening” to update it but had never found the time.

The booklet said that staff should not enter unsupported pits deeper than 1.2m, but Eaton said this did not apply to engineers like Wright or himself, who had both built up a practical knowledge of soil and the dangers.

He said he had inspected 7,000 pits during his career and Mr Wright 600 to 700.

“I would not consider letting someone loose until I was happy they could make that judgment and safely. I thought Alex was absolutely confident to make that decision,” Eaton said. “I could not think of a single occasion when Alex was in danger of making a wrong decision.”

Eaton was asked to point out in the health and safety booklet guidance relating to trial pits but after some time he could only find reference to excavations.

When told by an officer “it looks quite poor really”, Eaton replied: “If you say so.”

He then said: “In such a small organisation we were constantly looking out for each other. Even though the documentation, from afar, was woefully inadequate it does not mean to say that our own health and safety actions were flawed. Largely speaking I do not think they were.”

Eaton also said it was “absolutely essential” someone was on the surface when a worker entered a pit.

No one is in the dock for the trial but Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings denies the corporate manslaughter of Wright. The prosecution has been brought under the new Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

Earlier Mark Ellison QC, prosecuting, said Wright, from Charlton Kings, Cheltenham, was working alone when Eaton left.

The plot owners, Mark Clubb and his partner Carly Fields, were still on site but Ellison said the couple then heard “an odd muffled noise and then a cry for help” but despite attempts, Clubb was unable to save Wright, who died from asphyxia as he was buried by the soil.

Ellison said that industry codes of practice dating back to 1981 told of the dangers of workers entering pits deeper than 1.2m because of the walls of the pit collapsing.

The court was told that Eaton was not on trial as proceedings against him had ended because he was ill.

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