The former president of a water and sewer company, Brent Weidman, has been found guilty by a jury of two counts of negligent homicide and two counts of endangerment in the deaths in 2001 of 26-year-old James Gamble and 62-year-old Gary Lanser, who were killed in a confined space incident while working on an underground sewage tank. Last year, Arizona prosecutors Christina Fitzpatrick and Mark Horlings convinced a jury to find the Far West Water and Sewer Company guilty on five of the six felony charges filed against it. In January, a Yuma judge imposed $1.77 million in criminal fines against the company.
The jury acquitted Weidman of a charge of aggravated assault for the injury of a worker who survived the incident, but has permanent lung damage.
This tragedy was unfortunately typical of confined space incidents, where one of the workers killed was the attempted rescuer and two other rescuers narrowly escaped death:
Gamble entered the tank to remove a plug that was blocking a line into the tank and died after being overwhelmed by hydrogen sulfide fumes when a pump that ran raw sewage into the tank from a different line was turned on. Lanser died trying to save Gamble,
Enclosed areas or “confined spaces” in sewers and wastewater treatment plants (or anywhere where there is rotting organic material) are notorious for accumulations of hydrogen sulfide which can kill workers and their rescuers. Confined spaces can also develop life-threatening oxygen deficiencies and generate explosive methane gas. For this reason, OSHA has a detailed Confined Space standard which requires the air to be monitored, a means to safely rescue workers if they are overcome by fumes, and extensive training.
According to the prosecutors on the case, the violations were so blatant, and it was so obvious that the workers had no idea of the danger inherent in confined spaces, that a criminal prosecution was completely appropriate. The air in the tank had not been tested during the day of the incident, the workers weren’t properly trained and the required safety and rescue procedures weren’t followed.
The families of the dead workers were pleased with the jury's verdict:
Ed Thrasher, Gamble’s stepfather, who smiled as the guilty verdicts were read aloud in court, was also pleased with the jury’s decision.This is but one of thousands of cases every year where clear violations of OSHA standards lead to the preventable deaths of workers. Most employers get away with a relatively small fines (the total OSHA fine in this case was $31, 500), but sometimes aggressive prosecutors can not only punish the killers, but send an important message out to employers nationwide: Workplace killing means jail.
“I thought the jury did a good job weighing all the evidence and coming back with the right decision,” said Thrasher, who attended every day of the 22-day trial. “It’s been a long five years.”
Both [Gamble’s mother, Carol] Borieo and Thrasher added they felt justice had been served and that they hope the jury’s decision will help save other lives as well as make companies take safety more seriously.
“Maybe this will make sure the people with the big paychecks, fancy titles and perks will realize they can be held responsible,” Thrasher said. “It’s really shameful when the bottom line is more important than people who work for the company.”