In what may be the last word in the criminal prosecution of Far West Water & Sewer, Inc. for the on-the-job deaths of two workers in 2001, a Yuma County Superior Court judge sentenced former company president Brent Weidman to seven years of probation and 840 hours of community service teaching safety classes for the Arizona OSHA.
After his conviction in June on two counts of negligent homicide, Weidman faced nearly four years in prison. According to prosecutors, Weidman had failed to train his workers in how to properly enter sewage tanks and on how to conduct emergency rescues, both required by OSHA. Also, the company failed to conduct required tests for sewer gas on the day of the incident. In addition to Weidman’s sentence, the company was convicted of five felonies and ordered to pay $1.77 million in criminal fines.
Though the decision may be the last word in this particular case, the issue of criminal prosecution for company negligence for on-the-job deaths continues to heat up across the U.S. (see States Pursuing Prosecutions against Corporations, Directors). Some advocates believe prosecution will lead to better training; others believe prosecutions will force companies to ensure compliance, not only in training, but in all areas of management responsibility.
Speaking of the judge’s decision to make Weidman conduct safety training as part of his probation, the press secretary of the Arizona Attorney General’s office told an Occupational Hazards reporter, “That was really the point of pursuing criminal charges against him. We think [safety training] was one thing that was really needed to help these workers avoid this incident.”
In contrast, Confined Space blogger Jordan Barab took issue with the sentence and the Attorney General’s rationale:
“I don’t think training was the point here. No one will dispute the value of a good worker training program, particularly when it comes to the potentially deadly hazards of confined spaces…[However, t]he law states that the employer is responsible for maintaining safe working conditions. Putting the entire blame on lack of training puts the burden on the employee to confront his managers, risking his job. While risking one’s job is clearly preferable to losing one’s life, that’s not the way the law is supposed to work in this country. After all, if the trained employee doesn’t confront his manager, then whose fault is that?“
After the sentencing, Weidman said, “I’m pleased it’s over and that it came out the way it did. But, it will always be a sore spot in everyone’s life. I’m sorry for the families and their loss and sorrow.”