Craig Sanborn, the president, managing member and primary owner of the Black Mag gunpowder factory in Colebrook, N.H., has been found guilty of multiple charges of manslaughter and negligent homicide for his role in the deaths of two employees. He faces the possibility of 20 years in prison, and was assessed fines of $10,000 in Coos County Superior Court.
Sanborn was charged with two counts each of manslaughter and reckless homicide in the May 2010 explosion at the plant that killed employees Donald Kendall, 56, of Colebrook, N.H., and Jesse Kennett, 49, of Stratford, N.H., while they were manufacturing a gunpowder substitute. The two men only had been working at the facility a month when they died.
The explosion, which injured a third employee (the three men were the only ones in the building), was so strong that it shook buildings blocks away and forced the evacuation of nearby neighbors as plumes of black smoke shot into the air. Firefighters were unable to fight the blaze because ammunition inside the factory was exploding.
In his opening remarks at the start of the trial on Sept. 30, Coos County Prosecutor John McCormick told jurors that Sanborn was motivated by greed and trying to meet the conditions of a contract for which he already had received a $300,000 down payment. As a result, according to McCormick, Sanborn was reckless in manufacturing and storing the black powder and did not provide adequate training for employees or a safe work environment.
McCormick also claimed that Sanborn stored a half a ton of explosive powder on site but did not have a permit to store more than 50 pounds of explosive powder, because the space he rented for the factory was an indoor, occupied building that shared the building with a church.
Sanborn’s attorney, Mark Sisti, had argued that employee error could have been to blame and that Sanborn was in North Carolina when the explosion occurred and therefore had no control over the conditions that caused the explosion.
The jury didn’t buy that argument, taking only three hours to find Sanborn guilty on all counts.
“The disregard for safety cost two workers their lives, and this jury agreed that Craig Sanborn’s actions were criminal,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “The Labor Department commends the Coos County Attorney's Office for its successful prosecution. We also appreciate the invaluable cooperation of the New Hampshire Department of Safety, specifically the fire marshal and the state police, during our investigation.”
On May 14, two workers and a plant supervisor were manufacturing a gun powder substitute known as Black Mag powder when the explosion occurred. The workers had been required to hand feed powder into operating equipment due to the Sanborn's alleged failure to implement essential protective controls. The employer also chose not to implement remote starting procedures, isolate operating stations, establish safe distancing and erect barriers or shielding – all of which are necessary for the safe manufacture of explosive powder. Additionally, according to OSHA, Sanborn chose not to provide the personal protective equipment and other safety measures employees needed to work safely with such hazardous material. OSHA cited the company with four egregious willful, 12 willful, 36 serious and two other-than-serious violations with total penalties of $1,232,500.
“Even after a prior incident in which a worker was seriously injured, and multiple warnings from its business partners and a former employee, this employer still decided against implementing safety measures," said Michaels at the time OSHA issued its citations. "Unfortunately, we see this kind of disregard time and time again across industries. All employers must find and fix workplace hazards so these types of avoidable tragedies don't happen, and workers can return home safely at the end of the day."
Sanborn contested the citations and fines to the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
In return for OSHA dropping the fine – Sanborn allegedly did not have the money to pay it – Black Mag LLC withdrew its notice of contest and agreed to entry of an order that it violated the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The company certified that the violations were abated by termination of all production operations, which occurred when the 2010 explosion destroyed the facility and put it out of business. Because it was licensed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the company was required by OSHA to execute ATF's Notice of Discontinuance of Business, which the agency turned over to the ATF.
Safety Instructions: Run!
The first witness at Sanborn’s trial was a former employee named Mark Porter, who said he quit after only working at the facility for six days. Porter’s concerns about safety proved prophetic: the explosion occurred nine days after he quit.
According to Porter, the only safety instruction he was given was to run if there was a fire. He claimed that when he mentioned his concerns to Sanborn, Sanborn became angry and started yelling at him. He claimed he was bullied into signing a letter of resignation indicating the gunpower irritated his eyes.
“Sanborn recklessly ignored basic safety measures that would have protected their lives,” said Michaels. “His criminal conviction and sentence won’t bring these men back to life, but it will keep him from putting workers' lives in peril. And it should drive home to employers this message: Worker safety can never be sacrificed for the benefit of production, and workers’ lives are not – and must never be – considered part of the cost of doing business. We categorically reject the false choice between profits and safety.”
The judge denied bond for Sanborn, who sought to be released from jail pending an appeal.