A recent experience offered me a real-world example of how seemingly small oversights can have catastrophic impact.
The agency that regulates utilities in my state requires our natural gas provider to inspect the gas lines every 3 years. A couple of months ago, I received a letter informing me they needed access to my basement to check the meter.
Since my meter had been replaced less than 2 years ago, I called to see if they really needed access because frankly, I did not want to be held hostage by their 16-hour service window – from 8 a.m. to midnight. I was told that as long as the lines had been checked by one of their employees in the past 3 years I was good to go.
Imagine my surprise when I came home a couple of weeks ago and discovered the gas had been turned off and a notice said it was because I had not granted them access to the basement. A furious call to their customer service department generated a promise that someone would be out immediately to restore service.
When the gas company employee showed up, she found leaks in both the inside and outside lines and informed me that I had to have a plumber fix the inside leaks before the gas company would send a crew to fix the outside lines.
The plumber fixed a leak he found in a valve near the boiler, and while he was in the basement, he pointed out a gas line that traveled past the first floor to the second floor. Since all the gas appliances reside in the basement or first floor, it appears that at some point in the 121-year history of the house, there were gaslights and possibly gas space heaters on the second and third floors. He suggested leaving the line until I told him I had smelled gas in the upstairs closets but thought I was imagining things. He capped the line immediately.
Two days later, the crew from the gas company showed up and started digging. They installed a new lining and hooked everything back up and I stood on the front porch and watched them prepare to leave as I dreamed of my first hot shower in a week. I walked back into my house…
…And was nearly knocked down by the smell of gas. I ran out to their truck and started banging on the windows.
The supervisor hopped out and with me on his heels ran into the house. As soon as he crossed the threshold, he shouted an oath that begins with “HOLY!” and ran into the basement. Then he ran out and started shouting at the crew to dig out the shut off valve. They had turned the gas on without reattaching the line to the meter, and gas was flowing unrestricted into my basement and first floor.
The incident made me aware of several safety lessons:
1) If you see (or smell) something that doesn’t seem right, don’t ignore it. Follow up and ask questions, because if your intuition is causing alarms to go off in your head,there probably is a good reason for it.
2) Don’t brush off routine maintenance because it’s inconvenient or will create downtime. It’s summer and all the windows are open in my house. If those leaks had not been detected, it would not have taken long with the windows and doors shut in the fall for the atmosphere in the house to become explosive.
3) The crew that came to my house repairs lines 6-7 days a week. One guy told me they are so short-staffed that halfway through the month, he already had 111 hours of overtime and had worked 16 days without a day off. He admitted, “I’m so exhausted, I can’t think straight.” Not a guy I want working around hazards.
4) The crew that came to my house had years of experience repairing gas lines. Yet they forgot the most fundamental step in my repairs: attaching the gas line to the meter. Sometimes the combination of “been there, done that a million times” and exhaustion or distraction causes employees to skip routine safety checks and overlook the most obvious red flags.
When lives are at stake, we can’t afford to have an “off” day or be so tired we ignore obvious hazards. At my house, the problem was quickly detected and solved; the next family might not be so lucky.