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INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN ROBERTSON – CUSTODIANS OF LPG SAFETY IN SOUTH AFRICA (LPGSASA)

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LPG safety is an issue that is commonly overlooked, if not, it is often under prioritized. The LPG Safety Association of South Africa (LPGSASA) sees to it that safety is upheld as a primary focus in the industry. The current head custodian of LPG safety in the region is none other than Kevin Robertson. Having joined the association 15 years ago, he became the CEO in 2014 and has since been leading the charge for the promotion of  safe and efficient  use of LPG.  Kevin says, “It is important to make known the economic advantages of LPG  and its role as a modern fuel that can enrich the lives of all its users.” He  says that it is the LPGSASA’s focus is to ensure the sustainable growth of the LPG industry through compliance with best safety and business practices.

We were interested to find out what exactly the association was doing for the industry. Kevin explained to us that the main activities of the LPGSASA are:

  • The provision of training of LPG installers to an ongoing point of competency and professionalism, LPG tanker/maintenance
  • Cylinder filling and other product safety related training
  • Administering the Safe Appliance and Cylinder Verification Schemes in order to try and ensure that only compliant and verified products are distributed or sold in South Africa
  • Assisting the South African Bureau of Standards to establish and review national safety standards 
  • Media liaison and informing and educating consumers on the safe use of LPG.

Kevin says that there is little doubt if that the efforts of the association have had a positive impact on the industry. He explains that while the market has shown fairly strong growth, the number of reported incidents has shown minimal increase. From correspondence received through calls and e-mails, he finds that it is very apparent that the consumers are far more aware of the standards and regulations governing the use of the product.  He says that similarly, the awareness amongst certain industries such as the hospitality, insurance and property industries, to mention a few have has also increased substantially.

A Focus On Safety

Kevin says that since his time at the head, the association has become far more focused on the needs of its members and other industry players as well as trying to communicate with these  players as frequently as possible so as to  ensure that they receive enough relevant feedback on market changes and conditions. He goes on saying, “Our focus on safety has intensified. This is evident in our recent move to premises which are better suited to practical training. Previously our training was strongly theoretical but this has now changed and all our courses have a strong emphasis on the practical elements. Ensuring installers are correctly and practically trained can only be of benefit to the industry and to consumers – existing and potential.”

Training is an essential part of the development process of any industry. Upgrading the knowledge and skills of operating staff improves the level of the industry as a whole and has become one of the key functions of the LPGSASA. The association’s training courses range from 4 hour Legal Compliance Seminars to full 5 day installer and filling courses. A complete listing of all their available courses can be found on their website. All the courses are structured to ensure the familiarity and understanding of South African National Standard 10087 part 1 to 10,  which encompasses the handling, storage, distribution and maintenance  of LPG in domestic, commercial, and industrial installations.

The Government & The LPGSASA

Taking into consideration that on top of training, there  are still many areas of the LPG value chain that need monitoring and enforcement., it would seem that the LPGSASA has its work cut out for them. All this seems like quite a task for just one association. We wondered if other than the LPGSASA, were there other regulatory bodies involved in monitoring and enforcing the South African Safety Standards?

Kevin replied, “The Government department mainly responsible for safety is the Department of Labour. It is they who are responsible for the implementation, continuous assessment and, to a large extent, enforcement. The Local Authorities (Fire Departments) also play a critical role through their participation on committees which address safety standards as well as being involved in approving and/or authorising (or otherwise) plans, etc.”

worker with helmet in front of production hall

He added that the association operated under mandates from the Department of Labour which covered the Safe Appliance Scheme, the Cylinder Verification Scheme and the training of installers and cylinder filling. He also mentioned that the association also participates in various technical committees which provide input into the standards writing arm of the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).

Kevin also said that the Department of Labour has been extremely supportive of the Association’s endeavours but he did remark however, “We do feel that more  can be done to encourage the use of LPG, especially in light (pardon the pun) of our electricity supply and cost challenges.”

When asked which areas he felt that the government could improve on, Kevin responded by saying that clarity on pricing structure would be beneficial to the industry. He also mentioned  that enabling the process for import and storage facilities is of major importance, as is the supply of LPG, especially during the winter months. “There is a need for a licensing regime for the distribution network as currently a license is only required to purchase from the refineries, this makes control of the distribution network, from a safety perspective extremely difficult,” he stressed.

The LPG Distribution Chain in South Africa

The extremely difficult task means having to monitor the safety of the entire LPG distribution chain in the country which is quite extensive. Kevin explained to us that from production to end  user there are quite a number of intermediary stops of which safety can be an issue. Major wholesalers access LPGas directly from the refineries and store it in bulk tanks at their various depots. From here, it is transported, either in smaller, transportable, bulk tanks or in cylinders of varying sizes, to distributors who in turn supply the various dealers – i.e. smaller outlets who supply filled cylinders to the public. In some instances, the wholesalers and/or the distributors may supply directly to large end users (often commercial users such as restaurants, malls, etc.). for industrial type applications the major wholesalers generally supply direct.

The entire value chain operates under a set of safety regulations that are described in detail in SANS 10087 part 1 – 10 which have been developed through the participation between the standards writing authorities (SABS), the Department of Labour, the emergency services (fire departments), the LPGSASA and various industry players all providing input over an extended period of time. The standards and regulations are continuously reviewed and amended if and when necessary.

Seeing as how these standards have been developed somewhat internally, we asked Kevin if there were any particular safety procedures that have been implemented that are unique to South Africa?

“None that immediately spring to mind – the SABS and Technical Committees make regular reference to international standards, regulations and norms, and as members of bodies such as ISO and the World LPG Association, we have access to most of the information we require. We do, however, ensure  that these are relevant to South African conditions and requirements,” he replied.

Kevin says that the part of the distribution chain that poses the greatest danger to LPG professionals lies with distributors who buy directly from the refineries but do not have their own depots (storage facilities) nor their own cylinders. “These companies/individuals then use cylinders owned by and maintained by responsible companies who would normally keep the cylinders safely maintained. The companies who illegally fill these cylinders neither maintain them nor ensure that they are correctly filled, transported, stored, etc. This is a major concern as poorly maintained cylinders, especially if they are also overfilled can lead to extremely hazardous situations,” he stressed further.

The Future and Beyond

Kevin told us that the LPGSASA is currently seeing to consolidation of the purchase of their new property as it has been a major task but they were still firmly focused on training so as to ensure the industry maintains a high safety awareness and continues to operate safely and responsibly. He reiterated that the association aims to position LPG as the safe, efficient and acceptable alternative energy source. He believes that in so doing, the LPGSASA can assist in alleviating the drain on the electricity grid and alleviate energy poverty while simultaneously facilitating in the creation of more job opportunities.

Asking him what challenges the industry was facing in South Africa, he responded by saying that the practise of the illegal use and filling of cylinders is a major cause for concern.

“Because the industry is showing growth, it is attracting individuals and companies who wish to participate in the market  without playing by the rules. This results in non-registered persons undertaking installations, appliances which have not been verified being brought into the market and similarly, cylinders which have not been verified being distributed/sold. All of these practises can have a negative impact on the safe use of LPG,” he says.

Kevin ended off the interview saying that ensuring that LPG professionals are correctly trained in safety is without a doubt, one of the most important aspects  for the propagation and growth of the LPG industry globally. He told us that in South Africa, many, many people still have the perception that LPG is dangerous and every time there is an accident, irrespective of the cause – this myth is further propagated. “It is only with the presence of properly trained, responsible professionals who abide by the standards and regulations, that will ensure all aspects of safety are complied with and that the perception of people can truly be changed,” he adds.

(LPG Business Review)


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Kevin Robertson

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