Propane retailers, industry experts share biggest safety concerns

June 15, 2016 By    
Photo: iStock.com/Murat Domkhokov

Photo: iStock.com/Murat Domkhokov

Ten years have passed since one Michigan-based retailer experienced a major accident. That incident served as a wake-up call to prioritize safety.

According to the retailer, one of the company’s technicians took a shortcut when asked to purge some of the company’s tanks and fill the remaining propane into a bobtail. Instead of walking around the tanks with the hose, the technician walked on top of them in order to reach the tanks more quickly.

But in doing so, the technician missed a step and slipped off a tank, injuring his shoulder. The company says the incident brought safety to the forefront, and it’s since helped to prevent any other major accidents.

Cutting corners might not seem like a big deal if it means getting a job done, but for this propane technician, it cost him months off work.

Too often, safety remains in the backseat of employees’ minds – until an incident happens. Cutting a corner is just one way a propane employee can encounter a major safety issue.

The incident at the Michigan operation was just one lesson propane retailers shared with LP Gas magazine, which conducted an anonymous online survey about safety concerns that exist in the propane industry today. The content that follows reflects the insights of about 90 retailers responding to the survey, as well as on-the-record perspectives from industry safety experts.



Lack of documentation

The Propane Education & Research Council updated its Gas Check program this year based on retailer requests to make it easier to complete. Photo courtesy of the Propane Education & Research Council

The Propane Education & Research Council updated its Gas Check program this year based on retailer requests to make it easier to complete. Photo courtesy of the Propane Education & Research Council

Propane retailers might be tempted to skip some steps when inspecting and documenting a customer’s facility, but cutting corners in this area can create a legal mess for retailers if anything were to go wrong.

Ed Anderson, principal of LP Gas Training & Consulting, shares an example: If a technician inspects a customer location and fails to note that a homeowner uses an oil furnace, then the retailer could be put in a tough spot in certain situations. Anderson says there have been cases where a homeowner switches an oil furnace to a gas furnace without telling the propane retailer. Should that newly installed gas furnace catch fire, the retailer likely won’t have any documentation on it because he never documented the oil furnace in his original inspection.

Considering that possibility, Anderson explains that retailers need to document everything they see during these inspections. Although the Propane Education & Research Council’s (PERC) Gas Check program is optional, Anderson strongly suggests retailers use the program as a way to defend against potential liability cases.

This year, PERC updated its Gas Check program based on propane retailer suggestions. Stuart Flatow, PERC’s vice president of safety and training, says the council simplified the program’s requirements from three forms to two.

“We used to have a Gas System Check form, a Gas Appliance Check form and a customer form,” Flatow says. “Now, the customer form is included in those other two forms, so it’s simplified.”

Documentation is a must in liability cases, Flatow adds, so it’s often worth the time spent.

“Without documentation, you can’t prove to the courts that you inspected a customer’s site, even if that’s the truth,” he says. “But if you have documentation and it’s looking good, that helps you tremendously.”



Lack of education, training

Industry leaders encourage retailers to educate consumers, workers and management as a safety precaution.

Industry leaders encourage retailers to educate consumers, workers and management as a safety precaution.

For many retailers, safety starts with education, and a lack of it can truly hurt a business.

“I think there tends to be a lack of education to the consumer, the upper management and to the field workers,” Anderson says. “Education of all folks involved in the industry is critical, but it can be a difficult task.”

Anderson suggests retailers consider PERC’s educational materials to teach consumers about propane and related appliances, as well as to teach employees valuable safety tips. He admits the time used educating is not time spent making money, but keeping the business and others safe should be the first priority.

Greg Noll, executive vice president of the Propane Marketers Association of Kansas, agrees education and training should be one of the main focuses at retail propane operations. Noll says retailers can’t conduct business safely with uneducated teams.

Sending employees to safety courses is good, but Noll says it’s critical to follow up with employees after these sessions to find out what they learned.

“You can’t just sit an employee in a classroom for three to five days and then tell them they’re great for business,” Noll explains. “Ask them what they learned. They need that follow-up, direction and leadership.”



Do-it-yourselfers

Coming out of the Great Recession, it makes sense that people want to save money any way possible, including through do-it-yourself (DIY) home improvement projects. Yet, DIY projects have become a big concern in many industries, including propane.

“[Do-it-yourselfers] many times [get] inaccurate information from friends or YouTube that can lead to very dangerous situations from improper installations, misuse of containers and equipment, product leaks and other questionable practices,” says Eric Kuster, the new director of safety and certification for the National Propane Gas Association.

In 2014, PERC launched a campaign to advocate against DIY projects with propane and gas appliances. Flatow says because many do-it-yourselfers get their information for projects online, the campaign included a video, a website (www.diysafety.org) and widgets for propane retailers to post on their sites. It also encouraged do-it-yourselfers to submit a form to discuss propane-related projects and gain assistance from a professional. Since the campaign’s launch, Flatow says, the site has boosted awareness of the dangers of DIY projects among do-it-yourselfers, as the site has had more than 200,000 visitors.

The do-it-yourselfers issue also ties to the issue of documentation.

“The only way to protect a company against this issue is a documentation policy,” Anderson says. “Every time you send a company representative to a site, record everything you see on the site. And a good way to do that in this day and age is with the cellphones we all seem to carry all the time.”

Complacency on the job

Repetitive tasks lead to complacency, yet complacency can cause serious accidents because guards are let down.

Randy Halstead, manager of propane operations for HomeWorks Tri-County Propane, says he has seen complacency issues emerge when employees perform product transfer or crane operation tasks.

Halstead keeps his employees sharp by making a monthly safety visit with a random employee to check whether individuals are following all of the company’s safety standards. Halstead always shows up unannounced, but he says employees have a list of the things he checks for so they can prepare ahead of time.

“The nice thing about these visits is we can take corrective action afterward,” Halstead says. “I’m not doing these to get employees in trouble. We view it as an opportunity to correct safety issues.”

Routine safety meetings also limit complacency levels.

Halstead says retailers should host at least one monthly safety meeting. He created a calendar for HomeWorks Tri-County Propane that lists topics to discuss at each month’s meeting, including hazmat refreshers, Department of Transportation safety audits, defensive driving tips and product transfer tips.

Halstead adds that he’s open to employees suggesting safety topics they want to discuss.

“One time, I had a guy come up to me and say that he wanted to know more about poisonous plants because he noticed some in the field during deliveries,” Halstead says. “So we got together and had a discussion on that topic.”



Driver distraction

With advancing technologies, driver distraction has become a more prominent issue. While the main duty of propane delivery drivers is to deliver fuel, technologies might tempt drivers for their attention.

Although distractions such as employee fatigue or the radio have been around for decades, modern technologies have increased the likelihood of driver distraction.

Randy Warner, vice president of safety for Ferrellgas, says this issue is unlikely to diminish and that it’s grown in recent years.

Developing regulations on technology use in the cab can touch on personal space, as individual’s smartphones, for example, cannot be monitored well by management. Warner suggests at least discussing distraction issues like smartphones with drivers regularly.

“The constant struggle is in trying to create better driving habits,” Warner says. “You just need constant reminders to the drivers on the dangers of using cellphones in the cab.”

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Errors with leak tests

LP Gas magazine distributed an anonymous survey to readers on what they thought were the biggest propane safety concerns, and leak tests were noted as one of the top concerns. A key part of the Gas Check program involves a leak test.

An anonymous retailer in our survey shares a story on how performing a leak test protected his company against a lawsuit.

“One of our customers experienced a fire and property loss,” he says. “We had a documented leak test for his system within the prior year, which greatly reduced our liability. It emphasized the need to have current, documented tests on all of the systems we service.”

Retailers emphasize the importance of performing leak tests in an out-of-gas scenario, on new customer tanks and during new tank installations.


Video: More on propane safety

To discuss top safety topics in the propane industry further, LP Gas magazine met with Stuart Flatow, vice president of safety and training at the Propane Education & Research Council, and Jay Johnston, an insurance executive, business management consultant and inspirational safety speaker in the propane industry, who also serves as the magazine’s safety columnist. Check out videos featuring Flatow and Johnston throughout this article.


Final safety tips

“It’s easy to get complacent when you are working with a product that you rarely see. Always be aware that what we do is dangerous and sometimes deadly. Never forget why we see so many warning labels in our industry.”
– Nathan Charette, operations manager with Silver Valley Propane

“About 20 years ago, we started paying our drivers and service techs a ‘safe driving bonus,’ [which] is paid [to them] quarterly. Any accidents, mishaps, bumbles, wrecker bills from being stuck or lost came out of that bonus. Our wrecker bills went to almost $0 immediately. It made everyone more accountable for their actions.”
– Wes Welch, owner of WelchGas

“One of the most dreaded topics to talk about in propane safety is how to address an accident when it takes place. Be prepared to address with customers and the public because one incident can be readily learned about on social media.”
– Greg Noll, executive vice president of the Propane Marketers Association of Kansas

“There’s a host of safety training and informational materials out there in print and other media forms. It’s invaluable to the industry, and being knowledgeable of those resources is key.”
– Randy Warner, vice president of safety for Ferrellgas

Megan Smalley

About the Author:

Megan Smalley is the associate editor of LP Gas magazine. Contact her at msmalley@northcoastmedia.net or 216-363-7930.

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