Real-life incidents shed light on importance of workplace safety standards

July 28, 2016 By    
Photo by Allison Barwacz

Photo by Allison Barwacz

Ever since I can remember, my impression of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has been of this clandestine organization designed to chastise employers after an incident. Kind of like when the dentist scolds you as he fills a cavity – only more expensive.

The U.S. Department of Labor has an excellent website page titled “Help for Employers,” with topics including OSHA employer and worker coverage qualifications; employer responsibilities; identifying and controlling safety and health hazards; complying with OSHA standards and rules; and recordkeeping, reporting and poster requirements.

Far from a clandestine offering in this case, the OSHA webpage is an open book on everything you need to know to comply.

Here are a few real-life examples where incidents have occurred. We don’t have to experience a work-related incident to prevent one.

Learning from experience

In the 1970s, an employee of one of my clients climbed into a transport tank to change product service. He dropped a trouble light. The spark flash ignited what little propane was in the stack, and he was severely burned.

I’ll never forget going to that site and seeing this trouble light extension cord lying in puddles of water with duct tape every few feet. This was a confined space, and, in hindsight, the use of electricity inside a tank was an unsafe act. Incidents such as this have generated new rules regarding safeguards when performing such duties today.

That’s how it works. After an incident, we learn the cause in relation to rules and standards designed to prevent one. If rules and standards were followed, an investigation might uncover new safeguards or measures due to known exposures, perhaps leading to upgraded compliance standards.

Recent changes to labeling requirements for the propane industry are an example of such an upgrade.

Sometimes employees independently and willfully ignore training. This represents a challenge for management to remain vigilant in inspecting all processes for failure to comply. Managers can’t be everywhere, but an unsafe situation left to chance over time can become an invisible exposure until an incident occurs. Once the blanket of compromise is lifted with post-incident investigation regarding origin and cause, management may have played a part in compliance failure.

Here in Minnesota last year, two construction workers were injured, one fatally, in a fall at the new Viking Stadium. OSHA fined the contractor and subcontractor for serious and willful violations of general safety standards. The subcontractor had a history of safety violations, mostly related to workers not using safety harnesses or having guardrail protections. Keep your responsibilities and potential liability exposures in mind when entertaining subcontracted work.

Closer to home, OSHA reached a settlement last year with Blue Rhino over a 2013 propane explosion that severely injured six employees at a Tavares, Fla., plant. There were nine serious and six other-than-serious citations involving failure to follow process safety management and failure to ensure employees utilized personal protection equipment.

The cost of noncompliance

Every company in the propane industry is exposed to employees who fail to comply with training.

When workers are injured, workers’ compensation protects the employees for medical and lost-time injuries. These costs alone can be huge with regard to rate increases and a higher experience modifier multiple. Remember, we have an aging workforce and don’t need higher rates due to negative industry experience. This thought alone should inspire OSHA compliance with regard to worker safety.

I have found OSHA settlements on fines rarely seem severe. However, the negative publicity and allegations of willful violations can leave a stain on the best of companies.

While willful violations might seem common after an incident, it is important to remember that we are all in the same boat. We all have compliance exposures to manage, and the challenges can be enormous. This is why we must continue to strive to comply with OSHA standards and expectations for the propane industry.

Safe workers are productive and the very foundation of profitable results.

Jay Johnston ( is an insurance executive, safety management consultant and inspirational safety speaker in the propane industry. He can be reached at 612-802-0663 or

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