The good and bad of experience in the propane industry

August 31, 2018 By    

The propane industry is chock-full of seasoned veterans who have toiled in their trade or profession for decades. It is a testament to the industry that so many are dedicated to their jobs for so long. Experience can be a great asset when it comes to doing the job right.

But (I know you saw that coming) experience can also have a detrimental effect. As we all know, accidents in our industry are rare, but when they occur they can be catastrophic. The more we do something and nothing bad happens, the harder it is to break that routine or habit – even if what we are doing could be hazardous. We may do something for years without a bad result and therefore continue to do it, assuming that nothing bad will ever happen.

Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon: It is called benign experience. I recently defended a client in a spontaneous combustion case in which a country club burned to the ground. While not directly related to propane, it demonstrates how benign experience can lead to a major catastrophe.

Two weeks before the fire, the daytime housekeeping crew found a basket of just-dried laundry rags smoldering and threw them outside. They had been oily before and after being cleaned, and were put in a pile while still hot. From that point, the crew was told to always cool the rags and separate them from one another so they were not in a pile. The evening housekeeper knew of the daytime incident, but had done laundry for decades and continued with her old practice. She would put warm, oily rags in a pile in a basket. Sure enough, there was another fire on her shift and this one was not caught. As a result, the country club burned to the ground.

The reason the housekeeper had not changed her procedure? She had always done it the same way without a problem. She assumed the daytime crew just did something wrong. Her benign experience caused her to ignore the clear warning and new procedure.

We see this same phenomenon in our industry from time to time. We still hear of deliveries made to tanks that read zero but have some pressure when the spitter valve is opened, so no leak check is done. The tank may show sufficient pressure to operate appliances, but if an explosion occurs shortly after the fill, that explanation will be difficult to defend.

If the gauge reads zero when the driver arrives to make the fill, the better practice is to conduct a leak check. Past experience in this situation leads to bad habits and bad outcomes. Though it can be difficult, it is important to resist the tendency encouraged by your benign experience and make sure the leak check is performed and documented.

Another recurring area of concern is when marketers set tanks at new locations and only place 5 or 10 percent in the tank so the builder can check appliances. The logic is that when the new owner takes occupancy the tank will then be filled to 80 percent so the bill goes to the new owner.

However, we have seen cases where someone working on construction of the home, such as the HVAC subcontractor, will use the gas system before occupancy. A leak occurs accidentally, or on purpose, but the gas in the tank has lost its odorant. An explosion occurs.

There is no reason ever to fill a new tank less than 80 percent. The cost of paying for that fill is certainly something you need to track, but the risk of a leak without odorant is much more significant. The payment issue can be dealt with.

There are other examples that come to mind and I am sure you can think of some as well: A change of tenants with no inspection to see if appliances have been removed; or seeing code violations like the lack of a sediment trap or drip leg and not advising the customer or fixing the problem.

The point I want to make is that best practices require the marketer to strive to take a safe course when serving a customer. Doing what allows for the safest system is something to strive for, even if it means changing old habits. In the end, it will make for happy customers and fewer accidents.

John V. McCoy is with McCoy, Leavitt, Laskey LLC. His firm represents industry members nationally.


*Featured photo by Kevin Yanik

This article is tagged with , , and posted in Current Issue, Featured

Comments are currently closed.