Caution beyond code

October 1, 2008 By    

The process of achieving safe results is always a slippery slope.

Jay Johnston
Jay Johnston

Many code requirements are well founded, rationally reasoned and well scrutinized for practical application. They are not minimum standards – they are the standards.

The slope becomes slippery when plaintiffs’ attorneys and self-serving experts infer that the propane marketer failed to enforce code (with no authority to do so) or failed to recommend and/or enforce practices that exceed code.

For example, when a homeowner tries to install his own water heater, creating a leak and subsequent fire or explosion, numerous code issues may have been violated. In truth, the homeowner is required to adhere to code. A propane supplier has no jurisdiction or authority to save the homeowner from ill-advised acts of ignorance.

The safety communication by the propane marketer warning against such practice falls under what the legal community calls duty to warn. However, common sense is tough to enforce. It is a good idea, but may not be required by code.

Amazingly, some folks will claim they are drowning in a sea of safety information, so they never read it. Such ignorance causes accidents.

There are lots of warnings. Big box do-it-yourself stores sell water heaters bearing stickers and decals that reflect both code and non-code recommendations. They also come with other warning material and manufacturer’s instructions for safe use. For some reason, after an accident, only material given by the propane company is viewed pertinent and subject to scrutiny. An attorney hunting for money will suggest it is unfair to expect a homeowner to read and adhere to code requirements and safety warnings.

Can you really find someone negligent for recommending caution that exceeds code? It’s a slippery slope.

This also relates to commercial and industrial applications. OSHA and other mandatory code requirements reflect the duty of the employer to facilitate compliance – not the propane marketer. Failure on the part of any business to provide training and mandate use of personal protection equipment should be subject to regulatory authority.

It is important to note that the propane company as a fuel supplier is not a regulatory body. Therefore, they have no authority to enforce state or local codes. Yet, some personal injury attorneys or workers compensation insurance companies will allege that failure to exercise such authority constitutes negligence. Not only is that wrong, but it severely inhibits communication that suggests safety measures that exceed code requirements.

The propane industry gets unfairly trapped by any gray allegation that infers it should have exceeded code or should have known a customer was a handyman and therefore given him extra safety scrutiny.

Warning consumers about unsafe acts may prevent accidents and help facilitate the safe use of propane. Such communications should never be viewed as the last word, obligation or having any real jurisdiction – especially when unrelated to cause. It is wrong to squeeze money from propane marketers just because they have insurance. Liability insurance should not be an extension of social welfare.

The propane industry should not be in a position where we feel financially trapped by recommending caution beyond code.

Jay Johnston ( is an insurance agent, business insurance coach and consultant, safety writer and inspirational speaker. Jay can be reached at or 952-935-5350.

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