Plan for a safe handoff on job sites

February 16, 2023 By    

In September of last year, a jury returned a verdict of $73.6 million for injuries sustained by a mother, her 17-day-old son and his grandmother when a natural gas line was ruptured. Big N Deep Agricultural Development had struck the line with its bulldozer.

The incident occurred in 2015 and was tried to verdict in Kern County, California.

Big N Deep was hired for this project by Ag-Wise Enterprises. The natural gas line was owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), a major utility in California that is known for paying out a multibillion-dollar settlement related to wildfires in California within the past few years.

Ag-Wise was found to be 10 percent at fault for negligent hiring of Big N Deep as that company had struck another gas line in the past year. Had Ag-Wise done its due diligence, Big N Deep would not have gotten the job, alleged the plaintiff.

It was also alleged that PG&E did not properly mark its gas transmission line, and that it failed to have a company inspector on-site during the dig to ensure the line was marked properly. Had it done so, allegedly the accident could have been prevented.

PG&E settled prior to trial. Total damages recovered, including the PG&E settlement, amounted to $110 million.

PG&E was found to be 40 percent at fault. Big N Deep was found to be 50 percent at fault for this incident.

John McCoy

Dangers of assuming

This story of tragedy is one that we can discuss again and again.

We all seek to do our best each day to be sure that our employees and customers are safe. However, this incident brings to light how common it is for a number of parties to share responsibility for ensuring a project, an installation, a service call or a gas delivery are done safely.

This connectivity is a difficult process to manage in some instances. At times, there is a false comfort in believing that everyone else has done their part before we begin our task. This creates a false sense of security that we can proceed.

However, as this case demonstrates, any failure by other actors can lead to disastrous results.

We can surmise that PG&E and Ag-Wise assumed that Big N Deep would only work on a valid dig ticket with proper markings. PG&E assumed Ag-Wise would only hire a qualified company to bulldoze the area. Big N Deep and Ag-Wise assumed PG&E would properly mark its transmission lines. All three were found culpable in failing to make sure the work was done safely.

We can also surmise that the gas transmission line that was struck was not marked or properly marked. Had it been properly marked, the proper course would have been to hand dig within 18 in. of each side of the marking and pothole to find the transmission line. In this way, the line strike would have been avoided, as would this tragedy.

Communication and planning

This leads to a discussion about how work is accomplished at the local propane marketer level.

Our service folks and delivery drivers need to work to communicate what has been accomplished with other members of our team. This same level of communication has to occur on a regular basis with our vendors: propane suppliers, appliance vendors/manufacturers, equipment suppliers and other trade folks on-site.

Getting the job done is not the goal; getting the job done right is the goal. Safety should always be the overarching touchstone. How we accomplish this goal requires real planning to understand the risks and how they are minimized within the company team and with other trade folks. This concern is present on single-family home sites, as well as more complex projects like commercial construction or new home construction.

Each project requires some level of understanding of what was done by others before we begin our work. It also requires us to communicate what we have done to ensure a safe handoff.

John V. McCoy is with McCoy, Leavitt, Laskey LLC. His firm represents industry members nationally. He can be reached at or at 262-522-7007.

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