Thursday, April 10, 2003

Worker Error Department

(I sometimes search Google News for the term “Worker Error.” It almost always turns up some good stuff. For example…)

Here we have a story from the New Jersey Herald about a truck driver, John Baer, who had worked for Able Energy for twenty years. One day he transferred propane from a 10,000-gallon truck to a 3,000-gallon truck. Then he got in his truck and drove off. Except that he forgot to disconnect the hose, which ruptured. The emergency shut-off valve on the large truck failed. The gas spewed out, ignited, exploded causing the evacuation of 1000 residents for five days, closing of schools and $7 million in damage. The explosion damaged 67 homes in the immediate area, with 11 suffering "major damage,

The headlines read: Human, mechanical error blamed in Newton explosion

There were rumors that Baer was smoking while loading the propane. Also it turns out it's not legal to transfer propane from a large truck to a smaller truck. The Herald reported that “Able Energy Chief Operating Officer John Vrabel said the employee has more than 20 years' experience working with propane but failed to follow company operating procedures. Vrabel said the Able employee faces disciplinary action for his mistake. He said fuel isn't often transferred from a larger truck to a smaller one. "I would not characterize it as a common practice, no," Vrabel said.

A later article revealed that Baer no longer worked for the company.

Justice done? Maybe. But wait, a few issues….

1. Maybe Baer was a total screw-up. Maybe he was a conscientious worker, having a thoughtless moment. I don’t know him. But he had been working there for 20 years. Couldn’t have been too much of a screw-up.

2. Although Vrabel was SHOCKED that Baer had been illegally transferring propane for a larger truck to a small truck, it turns out that the state fined Able $408,000 “for performing some 816 illegal fuel transfers between August 1, 2000 to March 14, 2003 at the Diller Avenue facility,” in addition to other violations. (I guess 816 times isn’t “often.”)

3. One “witness” said only that he had seen Baer with a pack of cigarettes, not necessarily smoking.

4. This is the most interesting part to think about: Suppose Mr. Baer had driven away, leaving the hose connected and the emergency shutoff valve had functioned properly, shutting off the propane when the hose ruptured. Same action, but no explosion, no damage, no injuries, no evacuation, no media, no fines. Total damage if the valve had worked: A new hose and maybe a slap on the wrist for Baer.

So, what's the root cause? Who is taking the fall?