The way a geotechnical company conducted the digging of trial pits was the cause of the death of a geologist, a court has heard.
Closing the prosecution case in the trial of Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings (CGH) on charges of corporate manslaughter in the death of Alexander Wright, Mark Ellison QC said that the prosecution’s case was that “the way the company’s activity of trial pitting was managed or organised was a cause of Alexander Wright’s death”.
CGH denies that it unlawfully killed 27 year old Wright, who died from asphyxia as he was buried by the soil when the 3.8m deep trial pit he was in collapsed on him on 5 September 2008 in Brimscombe Lane, near Stroud in Gloucestershire .
Ellison told the court on Friday that the company’s management fell “well below what could reasonably be expected from the company to reasonable precautions” to take care of employees at work.
Even though digging of trial pits was a “substantial part” of CGH’s business, “it never got a mention at all in the company’s health and safety book”.
He told the jury in Winchester Crown Court that CGH director Peter Eaton had admitted he had not kept up to date with health and safety legislation on the digging of trial pits, and “was still doing it as in the 1970s”. In this time, the changes in health and safety practice including British standard BS6031, stated that employees should not enter an unsupported pit of more than 1.2m depth.
The prosecution also said that there was a failure to provide formal training in relation to trial pit digging, with employees learning from Eaton.
Wright worked as an assistant to Eaton, and one previous assistant to Eaton had said that they “had learnt nothing” from the health and safety guidance that the company provided, and what they did learn from Eaton was “entering trial pits by getting off a ladder to take readings”. Ellison told the court that an assistant said “he was never given any guidance, he was left to make his own decisions” about entering pits.
This is despite what Ellison called “the breadth of understanding” that led to the rest of the rest of the geotechnical industry giving up this activity of taking readings from inside unsupported trial pits of greater depth than 1.2m - because it was both dangerous and unnecessary due to measurements that could be taken from above ground. CGH “failed to even consider whether it would not be necessary”, so was not going through the process of risk assessment, he said.
One assistant only learnt about the standard when working on the site of another company as a sub-contractor, and another assistant has said that Eaton told him not to enter unsupported trial pits of greater than 1.2m when working on a site for Bovis because “they are pretty hot on health and safety”. This showed that Eaton was moderating his behaviour dependent on who he was with, Ellison said.
He said that the defence case is that its health and safety procedures were adequate and “it was [Wright’s] fault not our fault”.
However, Ellison said that Eaton told Alexander Wright to “finish up here or tidy up here” on the day he died, and that Wright was seen in the pit by witnesses when Easton was still on the site.
“If it’s being suggested that Mr Wright was doing something that was naughty, he wouldn’t have done it when Mr Eaton was still in place.” Ellison told the court. He said it showed that Wright was going down the pit to finish up the job as had been done before, and that Eaton may have been aware that Wright was going to go down the pit.
Ellison said that Eaton called the 1.2m rule a “glib assertion”, but that the defence had not called any expert witnesses to contradict the evidence of Earth Science Partnership director John Campbell, the expert witness called for the prosecution, that Alexander Wright should not have been in an unsupported trench greater depth than 1.2m because of the dangers of collapse.
The case at Winchester Crown Court continues, with the defence set to conclude its case today.