Safety in numbers

August 1, 2006 By    

For the first time ever, the propane industry has a comprehensive compilation and statistical analysis of data on safety incidents involving the nationwide distribution, transportation and use of odorized propane.

Researchers from the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University spent three years sifting data from more than a dozen federal and state agencies, independent groups and news reports to count the number of incidents, injuries and fatalities from 1998 through 2000 and identify their causes. Their recently released report breaks the findings into categories of residences, vehicles, appliances, grills, forklifts and carbon monoxide incidents.

The study found that the vast majority of propane-related incidents are due to lack of awareness, including the intentional disregard of hazards.

Number of incidents, injuries and fatalities for 3 years
Number of incidents, injuries and fatalities for 3 years

“This first-ever study confirms what we have said for years: propane is a safe and efficient fuel handled by a safe and efficient industry,” said National Propane Gas Association Chairman Randy Rutherford. “While no consumer product is completely safe, this study confirms that propane incidents and fatalities are very low compared to the millions of times propane is used each year by consumers and businesses.”

NPGA leadership pushed hard for the study to help guide its safety training efforts and ensure that safety regulations, codes and standards were based on accurate information. Historically, the lack of data has made it difficult for the industry to monitor its performance and defend safety improvements that have been implemented.

“I believe, as an industry, we are more focused on safety than many other industries. But there is still significant room for improvement, as the study points out,” said AmeriGas President Gene Bissell, who championed the research project as NPGA chairman in 2002-03.

Project supporters say the report can provide a baseline against which future progress in the safe handling of propane can be measured. It also can identify areas needing improvement, help prioritize safety initiatives, influence consumer-buying decisions and mitigate unnecessary, burdensome and costly regulatory mandates, they claim.

Number of incidents, injuries and fatalities by suspected cause for all data sources
Number of incidents, injuries and fatalities by suspected cause for all data sources

“We believe this ground-breaking project will help enhance ongoing safety programs, will benefit propane consumers at work and at home, and will increase regulatory and consumer confidence,” Propane Education & Research Council President Roy Willis said.

PERC paid $538,365 for the study. Among its key findings:

  • From 1998-2000, there was an average of 140 fatalities per year associated with, but not necessarily directly caused by, the use of propane.
  • In residences – primarily single-family homes – twice as many incidents involve equipment malfunction as human action. Equipment malfunctions are attributed mainly to inadequate maintenance or equipment defects. Inadequate maintenance accounted for nearly twice as many incidents – and three times as many fatalities – as equipment defects.
  • There were about 4,000 propane grill-related incidents per year, with an average of three fatalities per year in a population of 47 million users.
  • Carbon monoxide incidents account for just 1 percent of all propane incidents, yet represent 22 percent of all propane-related fatalities.
  • There were 0.5 fatalities per year per 100,000 vehicles fueled by or transporting propane. That compares to 20 fatalities per year per 100,000 vehicles of all types. In a number of incidents, propane played only a peripheral role.
  • Incidents involving camping trailers are primarily related to carbon monoxide.
  • There were no fatalities and just 28 injuries among the 500,000 propane-fueled forklifts in use in the United States.
  • Twenty-four incidents occurred at 35,000 domestic bulk propane storage and distribution facilities.
  • OSHA statistics indicate a declining trend in occupational injuries associated with propane for the period 1992-2002.

What it means

Propane industry leaders say the numbers confirm the industry’s long-standing belief that propane is a safe fuel and that that industry members are responsible stewards of their product.

Incidents, injuries and fatalities associated with propane equipment
Incidents, injuries and fatalities associated with propane equipment

“It certainly reflects that the industry is taking great strides – and effective strides – to be safe relative to other things in normal, everyday life. It has a very good safety record,” said John McCoy, a trial lawyer with the firm of McCoy & Hofbauer who specializes in catastrophic fire and explosion cases and product liability disputes.

McCoy, a founding member and past president of the Propane Gas Defense Association who provided legal review of the report, said the documentation will help validate the courtroom positions he has been defending for 19 years.

“One of the criticisms has always been that propane is more dangerous than other fuels. This study allows us to say that this isn’t true; that was simply an anecdotal argument that wasn’t based on true fact. That’s huge.”

Number of incidents, injuries and fatalities by contributing factors for 'human action'
Number of incidents, injuries and fatalities by contributing factors for ‘human action’

M. Sam Mannan, a chemical engineering professor at Texas A&M and the director of its Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center, has done similar studies for other industries. He said the research left a favorable impression regarding the overall safety of the propane industry.

“I would say the industry, as a whole, is a very safe industry,” Mannan said.

“Before the study, I would have thought number of fatalities that the industry might be responsible for, or had jurisdiction or control over, would have been higher. But that’s not the case. In reality, it’s a very good story to tell.”

Converting Numbers To Action
Converting Numbers To Action


The number of annual incidents averaged just over 30,000. For the study, incidents are defined as actual or threatened exposure to or release of propane, propane fires or carbon monoxide from a propane flame that caused or reasonably could have caused a death, injury, evacuation, sheltering in place, or property damage.

The method for estimating the total number of incidents is based on the number reported in the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). However, NFIRS does not cover the total universe of incidents because it is comprised primarily of fire department responses to fires. A relationship between NFIRS and the totals estimated for injuries and fatalities was established by researchers and then applied to the incidents.

Number of incidents, injuries and fatalities by contributing factors for 'equipment malfunction'
Number of incidents, injuries and fatalities by contributing factors for ‘equipment malfunction’

In addition to events directly related to propane containers and appurtenances, the report includes:

  • Incidents involving appliances, vehicles and other equipment beyond the direct control of the propane industry;
  • Incidents involving carbon monoxide emissions from equipment or appliances;
  • Events where fires start within a structure, in a vehicle or at an outdoor area remote from a device containing propane and then spread to, involve, or threaten propane containers; and
  • Incidents involving illicit acts such as arson, sabotage, suicides and huffing of propane.

Incidents not included are those involving non-odorized propane such as those associated with pipelines, railroads, and barges. Injuries due to physical contact with propane containers – such as dropping a cylinder on your foot – also were excluded.


The annual totals for non-work and occupational injuries averaged about 2,700 and 300, respectively. The numbers were gleaned from two sources that use statistical surveys to determine a nationwide injury total.

Incidents, injuries and fatalities associated with propane equipment
Incidents, injuries and fatalities associated with propane equipment

Data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) was used for non-work injuries; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) system was used for occupational injuries.


Of the 422 fatalities in the three-year study period, two-thirds were caused by propane fire, but the location or the process of the incident was outside the control of the propane industry. Nine percent were shown to be caused by something other than propane, 20 percent had an unidentified cause, and 5 percent were identified as “under the control” of the propane industry.

The role that the propane industry had in these fatalities is unclear, however. While propane industry personnel may have been in proximity to the incident – filling a tank, for example –their actions may or may not have been the cause of the incident.

Distribution of fatalities by nature and location of fatalities
Distribution of fatalities by nature and location of fatalities

The report also notes that average number of fatalities per year (140) compares favorably to the number of people who die from lightning strikes (100) and flooding (140) each year nationwide.

“While even one fatality is too many, when you look at the number of fatalities due to fires of all sorts, and the number of propane-related fatalities, I think it shows that the fuel itself – when used right – is an intrinsically safe fuel and that the industry on balance are pretty good stewards of their product. But without this data, it’s all subjective,” Flatow said.

Sensitive Data

Not everyone favors the idea of documenting the industry’s safety track record. Many marketers – including some NPGA and PERC board members – fear the research could be used against them in court once the statistics become public.

“The final numbers tell a good story, but there is always the concern that the results can be taken out of context,” acknowledges Rutherford. “While NPGA presents the entire story to Capitol Hill or regulators, we are concerned that others, such as reporters or attorneys, will pick and choose what they want to present and slant it towards their own agendas.”

Those concerns have persisted since the NPGA formed a task force to study the issue almost 10 years ago.

“There were certainly people on the NPGA board and PERC council then, and probably now, who worry about this sensitive data being made public,” recalled AmeriGas President and CEO Gene Bissell, who chaired the task force.

“On the other hand, there is a lot of incorrect incident information out there. We thought we would be better off with accurate information to defend our industry, but more importantly to guide our safety efforts in NPGA and PERC. We knew this information would also be useful in dealing with legislators and regulators.”

But McCoy, who handles 60-70 propane cases per year, dismisses the notion that the study creates legal problems.

“There is no way that a study like this – no matter what its result – puts you at more risk. It only identifies the risk,” McCoy said.

“I understand the concerns that people raise about documenting what the risk is, but you cannot take steps to improve upon your risk factor until you understand it in a meaningful way. If you are really committed to try to improve things, you have to take certain risks. One of them is to look yourself in mirror and take stock of where you are. That’s what has been done; the industry has said it is going to find where its weaknesses and warts are and then put together ways to improve what’s going on. That’s the only way you can change some of the things that are problematic to the industry.”

There has been preliminary discussion, but no decision, about continuing the study going forward. A $229,900 funding request submitted to PERC for Texas A&M to expand its work to include government data from 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2003 has been tabled.

For a summary of the study or to request a copy of the full report, contact Stuart Flatow at 202-452-8975.

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