Written on: March 14, 2022
By Eric Leskinen
When it comes to priorities for propane marketers, safety is certainly a top priority. Despite safety’s critical role in the overall success of a propane business, many marketers still rely on outdated or inconsistent protocols in the field. Without consistent safety policies and procedures that transverse all locations and technicians, marketers assume more risk than is necessary.
The first step in evaluating the effectiveness of your company’s safety protocols is to review the current written policies and procedures for daily operations. Safety-related policies and procedures are crucial to ensure that all employees operate according to a uniform set of guidelines. Written policies should include language to cover legal issues, the health and welfare of employees and customers, and requirements as determined by DOT, NFPA, and OSHA. Each individual procedure defines who is responsible for completion of the task, what steps are involved in the process, when each step is undertaken, and how the progression of steps is performed to complete the procedure.
Many marketers assume that employees and technicians operate consistently with respect to leak checks, pressure tests, cathodic protection, and other important procedures. In the absence of written protocols that are used for safety meetings and training, it is very unlikely that the consistency management hopes for is actually happening.
Every propane marketer knows the saying, “If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.” Establishing clear, consistent policies and procedures is the best way to ensure that every aspect of your team’s operations are performed and documented properly. This is probably the best risk mitigation process a marketer can implement when considering the economics of cost and benefit.
The case of Wilmes v. Consumers Oil of Maryville from the article “Recent Cases Test Limits of Missouri Propane Immunity Statute,” by David R. Schlee, presents an example of how written policies and procedures can help protect marketers from liability claims. In this case, the customer, Mr. Wilmes, personally installed a radiant heater and ran the gas lines from the tank he owned at his residence to his barn. When the marketer delivered 400 gallons of propane to the property, Mr. Wilmes advised the delivery driver that the installation was new and asked the driver to check the gas line and the heater The delivery driver inspected the piping and installation and indicated that everything was okay.
Within the next few days, Mr. Wilmes operated the heater twice. The second time, he operated the heater and then shut off the thermostat without closing the tank valve. Upon returning from a trip, he switched on a light, turned on the thermostat, entered the building, and there was an explosion. Mr. Wilmes luckily survived but suffered extreme burns and spent 63 days in the hospital.
In court, the marketer was unable to provide evidence of the delivery driver’s inspection and approval of Mr. Wilmes’ personal installation and modification of the system. The trial court agreed with the marketer’s claim that “Wilmes modified the gas system by turning the gas off and on through his actions; however, this was not enough and the decision was overturned in appellate court.
We can see from the results of this case that a major issue with the marketer’s defense was the lack of documented evidence of the delivery driver’s inspection of Mr. Wilmes’ installation. If the acknowledgment, inspection, and approval of Mr. Wilmes’ personal modifications had been properly documented, the marketer would have been able to use the documentation as proof that all systems were safe and sealed upon the delivery driver’s departure.
Could Written Policies and Procedures Have Changed the Outcome?
If the propane marketer had established policies and procedures in place, the written policies regarding new installations and state modification requirements would have dictated proper employee operations for these specific circumstances. Procedures would direct the delivery driver to perform the safety inspection as he did, but the final step would have been documenting the inspection for the company’s records.
In light of this litigation case, consider how your company’s policies and procedures program would have held up. Do written policies and procedures exist and are they adequate? Unfortunately, litigation is engrained in the system within which we operate. To avoid consequences like the Wilmes case and adhere to your insurance company’s requirements, incorporate these critical components into your safety documentation program.
Be proactive and ensure that your company’s policies and procedures are current, consistent, and communicated effectively to all employees. The cost to benefit ratio will accrue in your favor.
Eric H. Leskinen, Executive Vice President, P3 Propane Safety, a veteran of the industry, has over 30 years of experience with career progression from field operations to corporate direction. He has designed, managed, and executed safety training and compliance programs for multi-state companies with up to 1,100 employees. As a true compliance and safety specialist, his background and skill set make the P3 Propane Safety training services invaluable to marketers seeking to improve their compliance and overall efficiency.