Safety in your backyard: Some situations all too real

August 1, 2013 By    

Throughout my career as an insurance agent and safety advocate, I have struggled with local complacency in the propane industry when it comes to safety.

A common comment from leadership is about the local evil competitor who violates standards and code with regular and reckless abandonment. Many large companies feel it is the smaller marketers who create image problems for the industry. Not true.

Not long ago, the attorney general in my state challenged the business practices of a major marketer. It was an ugly confrontation that resulted in a suspension of its membership in our state association due to the wrath of regulation threatened if our members did not get their practices under control.

While this confrontation was eventually resolved, it never should have been an issue. Propane companies large and small own the dog to do their best every day when it comes to safety and good business practices – not just when someone is watching or they get caught.

That said, in my journeys around the country, it doesn’t take long to find a problem that has yet to cause tragedy. Sometimes the issue is so obvious that I can’t believe the driver who has been delivering to the system was ever trained. In many cases, at a minimum, they aren’t looking for problems.

During a recent trip to my cabin in northern Minnesota, I found a dispensing situation that reminded me of the fatal 2007 explosion at a convenience store in Ghent, W.Va. This situation had so many violations that it was hard for me to believe someone was filling this tank, let alone dispensing from it. Yet the driver suddenly appeared and filled the tank, failing to put blocks down.

At first, I noticed the housekeeping issues, which included gasoline and kerosene tanks next to the propane tank along with debris, plastic, old batteries, discarded 20-pound cylinders and a pile of bamboo fishing poles. Then I noticed the 500-gallon tank against the wall of the store.

The cylinder-filling cage thankfully contained a scale, but it was unprotected and rusty. There was one shutoff – a ring on a cable to shut off the belly valve – but it would be inaccessible in a problem situation.

To make matters worse, there was a Dumpster about three feet from the tank, and you could see a big rust mark where the Dumpster had been hitting the end of the tank. Then I began to notice the traffic behind this store, trucks pulling boats coming around the unprotected corner, cars headed for parking spaces and kids on bikes.

Every Thursday, this town holds turtle races about a half-block away and a few thousand tourists with kids are present. The road/alley behind the store becomes a bumper-to-bumper freeway of people looking for a place to park.

The store’s manager and its insurance company obviously had not inspected this situation. In their defense, they wouldn’t know what to look for. The propane supplier or the authority having jurisdiction in the community obviously had not done so either. I find it hard to believe that someone from another propane company had not seen this situation.

Having no authority in this situation, I informed the gas company vice president and its supplier of the situation and strongly recommended they shut it down before we have another tragedy. Six days have passed and, as I write this column, the situation is still not corrected.

While this may be hard to believe, how fast can your company respond to a problem situation? What defines a problem? Does it have to be on fire for you to act? What are the triggers that generate a sense of urgency when it comes to consumer, employees and emergency personnel safety? If this were your situation, as a marketer or supplier to this marketer, what would you do?

It is my sincere hope that you take this situation seriously and discuss such exposures at your next safety meeting. To say these situations do not exist is pure denial.

Whether it is your refilling customer or one supplied by one of your competitors, lives are at stake and we all suffer the consequences as an industry after an accident.

Let’s all take a look at safety in our backyard.

Jay Johnston is an independent insurance agent, business consultant, safety leadership coach and motivational speaker. He can be reached at 952-935-5350 or

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