Just the facts – finally

June 1, 2003 By    

Safety is a relative term. Don’t believe it? Try disputing the catchy phrase that competing energy vendors use to lure prospective customers: “Go propane, go boom.”

Preying on the fears of an uneducated consumer is a sales strategy as old as the propane industry itself. It works because few customers have any idea how safe our fuel is compared to natural gas, fuel oil or electricity. For that matter, we as an industry don’t even know.

Past efforts to research safety statistics were stifled by concerns that plaintiff attorneys would use those findings against us. For too long, the industry believed it was better off not knowing the facts. So the unfounded scare tactics of our competitors went unanswered.

But now a project to validate propane’s safety record is coming to fruition. The Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University is collecting data from a wide range of sources with different interests, data collection procedures, definitions and scope. The data is integrated into a customized data bank for the propane industry and the fire protection communities nationwide to track safety performance.

Funded by the Propane Education & Research Council, the project still has many folks jumpy about digging up facts that may not reflect well on the industry overall. The council is even looking at ways to keep the findings confidential under the umbrella of attorney-client privilege. I sincerely hope those concerns don’t thwart the slow but consistent progress in this overdue work.

The best way for a propane retailer to stay out of the courthouse is to keep the incidents from happening in the first place. This project should help do just that. Beyond the raw incident numbers, it is looking for the root causes. Over time, it should tell the industry whether safety breaches are most often a result of consumer error, equipment failure, certain applications or mistakes by industry staff. The industry should then be able to respond with targeted training and safety programs to fix those problems.

Project researchers recently completed the first two phases, and its findings are eye opening.

By expanding the source of data beyond a single source – such as the National Fire Incident Reporting System that is commonly used to chart the number of fires, explosions, injuries and fatalities across the country – they have come up with a much more thorough accounting of propane incidents. Their study of 1998 data identified 1,000 incidents beyond the 2,800 reported in NFIRS for that year. It also captured eight times the number of fatalities.

Texas A&M officials still have three more steps to go to collect and analyze incident data from more recent years. They also have told PERC that in order to accomplish the ultimate project goals a real-time incident data collection procedure must be established. Real-time incident data collection for an industry too scared to find out about itself? That’s progress worth getting excited about.

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