The start of spring lures workers from their offices to the wafting smells heated up by food truck entrepreneurs on the streets below.
What’s also cooking: simmering workplace safety risks like overloaded trucks, cooking on the go, and pressure to cut corners that can draw workplace safety fines and even increased explosion risks in the traveling kitchens.
“These are unique exposures on food trucks that you don’t have elsewhere,” said Ralph Blust, president of the insurance brokerage Insureon Solutions in Chicago.
There are more than 4,000 food truck vendors in the U.S., with the industry experiencing rapid growth in the past decade to an estimated $2.7 billion in revenue in 2017, according to IBISWorld, a market research group. Business owners are drawn to startup costs that are a fraction of launching a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but failing to take employee safety into account can bring fines and liability enough to smother the best culinary dreams.
The heated expansion has brought a glut of unprepared owners, said Rob Mitchell, owner of the Cow and the Curd, a Philadelphia food truck selling Wisconsin-style cheese curds.
“It’s almost like a Swiss watch,” Mitchell said. “There’s hundreds of moving pieces in there. They could all be moving perfectly, except for one.”
Propane’s Special Risks
Propane gas explosions present one of the most serious safety risks. Under federal law, propane cylinders must be retested or replaced every five to 12 years, depending on the type of cylinder and its condition. Food truck owners use propane to heat food on the go, but canisters and cables can be damaged from the wear and strain of driving.
That’s what happened to La Parrillada Chapina, a food truck serving Guatemalan fare in a Philadelphia neighborhood. The truck’s propane tank blew up in a 2014 incident caught on surveillance video, killing the owner and her teenage daughter, who were working. OSHA inspected the truck, but didn’t issue citations.
U-Haul Co. of Pennsylvania later agreed to a $160 million civil settlement of charges it filled the propane tank without recognizing it was damaged. Under the settlement, the company said it could have filled the canister but “maintains that it did not.”
U-Haul “is helping guide the industry in promoting safety awareness and best practices essential for the propane community and consumer,” the company said in a statement.
The incident shocked the industry, prompting the National Food Truck Association to develop new training videos for operators, said Matt Geller, the group’s founding president.
Propane tanks are safest when they’re built in to the bottom of a truck and operators can leave them alone, Geller said.
The food truck group has worked with the National Fire Protection Association, an influential safety standards organization, to address the propane risk. The NFPA developed propane safety language in a new safety standard setting ventilation and fire protection recommendations for commercial cooking operations.
Local authorities can choose to adopt the language as part of their fire codes. If adopted, local fire marshals could cite businesses that flout the rules.
Still, non-fatal propane explosions continue. A food truck serving Southern-style fried chicken blew up in Eugene, Ore., on Feb. 24, damaging an adjacent craft brewery. In Tennessee in 2017, a woman was injured when her food truck blew up in Memphis. Food trucks in Portland, Ore., and Miami also have been damaged in propane blasts.
Federal, state, and local authorities monitor food truck worker safety.
The issues are mainly addressed by local authorities, though the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and state worker safety agencies also play a role. Federal OSHA treats the trucks the same as any other workplace.
Food truck owners who run afoul of safety regulators can face significant fines, though citations are rare. By law, OSHA can’t inspect businesses that operate as sole proprietorships, without employees.
OSHA has issued 125 citations to 67 businesses categorized as mobile food establishments since 2009, records show, proposing more than $213,000 in fines. The most common violations were for failing to develop a hazard communication program for chemicals used in the workplace, not reporting employee injuries within 24 hours, and not providing employees access to safety data sheets for chemicals.
Rules and Standards
Food truck operators have opposed some local regulations restricting where and how many trucks can sell in a particular area, Geller said. But most operators would support rules that make workers safer. Many local authorities place more weight on non-safety restrictions than making sure trucks are built and operated well, he said.
For example, vendors in Texas are banned from public streets, sending them to private parking lots. But poorly maintained trucks proliferate because specific construction standards are not required, Geller said.
That entices some owners to cut costs.
Food truck owners could save money by using cheaper, household generators instead of commercial products, said Che Ruddell-Tabisola, owner of BBQ Bus Smokehouse & Catering, which sells pulled pork, chicken jalapeno, beef brisket, and other sandwiches in the Washington, D.C. area.
The BBQ Bus’ generator cost $10,000 and was installed directly on the truck, Ruddell-Tabisola said, while a home generator from a warehouse store like the Home Depot Inc. would have cost under $1,000 but “that would have been far less safe.”
Owners need to consider safety at the start when designing a truck, Richard Gomez, vice president of engineering/design and compliance at Vahe Enterprises Inc., a Los Angeles food truck manufacturer, told Bloomberg Law.
It’s an engineering problem: it’s hard to convert used vehicles like old school buses and Airstream trailers to a purpose they weren’t made for, Gomez said.