Food truck safety incident reminds stakeholders to remain vigilant to exposures

September 25, 2014 By and    
AP Photo/Philadelphia Daily News, C.F. Sanchez

The July 1 propane explosion of a Philadelphia food truck highlights a gap in safe use and safety inspections of some food trucks. AP Photo, Philadelphia Daily News, C.F. Sanchez

Propane has always been a safe, portable fuel that perfectly serves the fast-food industry.

There was a time when food trucks were referred to as roach coaches and could generally be found among construction sites and tourist attractions. Lunch wagon-type vendors served the masses with the basic hamburger, hot dog and deep-fried fare such as corn dogs, French fries, cheese curds and mini doughnuts. Propane was viewed as a fuel, not a safety concern.

Historically, there have been few propane-related incidents with food trucks, food carts or booths. Hundreds of thousands of portable, commercial propane cooking systems function safely every day without incident. This is a testimony to food vendors and propane marketers alike who respect the importance of training education and safe use.

Along with the portability and interruptible service comes the obligation for all stakeholders to be trained to properly handle use and distribution. Propane tanks and systems, when properly monitored and inspected, are not dangerous. However, exposures ignored can create safety problems. Employee complacency can create hazardous situations.

In the 1990s, I remember using a photo of an ashtray with a burning cigarette sitting on the valve of a 100-pound cylinder taken at a county fair to warn marketers and vendors about safety.

While that example might be unusual, I have spent many years at state fairs, taking pictures over fences and behind the scenes. Housekeeping seems to be the most common safety factor, where cardboard boxes, plastic wrappers and paper waste present a fire hazard. Occasionally full spare tanks and gasoline tanks for generators are stored too closely to the cooking appliances.

Typically, these sites and situations have been subject to scrutiny from local health inspectors, who might initially inspect the vendor for food and site safety, but don’t always stay around during the heat of battle to inspect any disregard for housekeeping or safety compliance.

Propane safety training
So who trains food vendors on propane safety?

Locally, it is unclear who inspects food trucks for safety in their propane use. Fire authorities are also limited by jurisdiction as trucks are considered to be a Department of Transportation exposure. Food trucks are currently exempt from Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations if the gross weight of the propane cylinder is less than 220 pounds, up to a total gross weight limit of 440 pounds of propane per vehicle.

Marketers who supply propane to vendor users may or may not take an active role in safety education and safe use during special events. It varies by supplier. It remains critical that propane dispensers inspect the condition and qualification dates on all tanks, and properly fill them per requirements of the National Fire Protection Association.

Explosion in Philadelphia
The July 1 propane explosion of a Philadelphia food truck that originally injured 13 people – a mother and daughter later died from those injuries – highlights a gap in safe use and safety inspections of some food trucks. Cylinder age and integrity have come into question as factors where grill flames ignited propane vapor leaking from an unused tank.

It makes sense for food truck vendors to have access to some form of propane safety information. Current brochures from the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) such as Dispensing Propane Safely, Propane and Your Recreational Vehicle, and Important Propane Safety Information for Users of Small Cylinders address many key issues that have application to food truck safety.

Common food vendor fire hazards include tanks out of qualification; overfilled cylinders; unsecured cylinders; propane cylinders inside the truck; aged or worn propane lines and unsecure connections; hot fryer oil and grills too close to tanks; burner knobs left in open position; and gas cans for generators stored too closely to tanks and trucks.

While it is always a bad outcome when any propane-related accident occurs, we have fewer incidents each year. I am proud to be part of an industry that takes responsibility for educating and warning consumers.

When it comes to food truck safety, all stakeholders must participate in identifying exposures and designing solutions. It’s the safety way.

Jay Johnston is an insurance executive, management consultant and inspirational safety speaker. He can be reached at or 952-935-5350.

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