It’s 5 November, and across the UK tonight sparklers will be sparkling, and bangers will be banging. Each year fireworks displays are put on to mark the fortunately unsuccessful attempt by a group of conspirators trying to demolish the Houses of Parliament.
In today’s guest blog, Tony Fishwick explores process safety and management of fireworks as part of a special issue of the Loss Prevention Bulletin, entitled Fireworks and Explosives.
Name: Tony Fishwick
IChemE role: A member of IChemE’s Loss Prevention Panel
Career: Tony studied chemistry at Durham University, and gained a doctorate in research into the organometallic compounds of beryllium, which, at the time in the mid-1960s, was of interest to the USA as potential boosters for rocket fuels. After university, he joined the Production Group of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. Over his career, Tony has managed chemical plants in the nuclear sector, and worked in several roles in health and safety management, covering emergency planning, behavioural safety and culture change. Tony is now enjoying retirement and volunteering on the Loss Prevention Panel.
Remember, remember the 5th of November! We all know about the failed attempt of Guy Fawkes and his conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. But what would have happened if it had succeeded?
Through various articles in the Loss Prevention Bulletin’s special issue on Fireworks and Explosives, we’ve taken a look at the possible devastation that could have been caused. Today, I want to give you a snapshot of just some content you will find there. You can download the special issue here.
The darker side of ammonium nitrate
Although gunpowder is no longer routinely used in modern weapons or for industrial purposes, cheaper alternatives are, such as dynamite and ammonium nitrate (AN). So, to start this issue, Kish Shah sets the scene with his article on the dangers of AN.
The large-scale production of this substance revolutionised land fertilisation, but it has a darker side. When mixed with combustibles, it can cause explosions by decomposition or detonation – which has been highlighted in several case studies.
To avoid accidents, AN must be kept away from fire, ignition sources, explosives and combustibles. When storing or using AN, it’s important to avoid any moisture forming on it as it causes “surface caking” – a layer on the top of the product, which ruins the material. Great care must be taken to break up any cake that does form. Never use explosives for breaking up the surface caking.
Searching for unexploded bombs
In his article, Mark Hailwood explores a totally different theme: unexploded munitions in conflict areas around the world.
30% of bombs from World War One didn’t explode. These “duds” are scattered across the world and therefore, in countries such as France or Belgium, intensive checks are still required to find them whenever excavation for land usage is carried out. For this, remote-controlled equipment, videoing and risk assessment are essential. Accidents, sometimes fatal ones, still occur in modern ordinance factories. One incident caused the deaths of 15 employees.
The Evangelos Florakis Naval Base explosion
The explosion at the Evangelos Florakis Naval Base in Cyprus, which killed 13 people, highlights an unusual scenario. An illegal cargo of explosives had been impounded and stored in a poor manner, which left much to be desired in terms of safety management.
In his article, Roger Stokes explains the lack of a risk assessment, its storage in bright sunlight, and its proximity to Cyprus’ main power station, as causal factors. All this was exacerbated by the influence of political factors over safety. This should not be allowed to happen.
Fireworks events – avoiding the dangers and risks
Pauline Arama reveals some staggering statistics in her article from incidents that have occurred during public fireworks displays and at people’s homes. Using the Analysis, Research and Information on Accidents (ARIA) Database, she selects a range of accidents that focuses on the pitfalls and how to avoid them.
In one accident at a fireworks depot, 22 people were killed, a supermarket was flattened and over 2,000 nearby residents had to be evacuated. At a public display, fireworks were propelled horizontally into the crowd. Fortunately, no serious injuries occurred.
Correct storage, cleanliness, absence of combustibles, highlighting aged products, and fuse protection are all key factors in safely managing fireworks. Most importantly, it must be underpinned by a sound safety culture.
Unplanned explosions – the domino effect
A series of major explosions erupted in a single fireworks plant and caused five deaths, Fausta Delli Quadri writes. The fireworks were being transferred from storage to an internal transfer truck, and they were then loaded into larger trucks to be transported to a fireworks display.
Four explosions occurred in adjacent buildings because of a “domino effect.” Fireworks pre-armed with detonators, excessive quantities stored, and an increased work pressure due to a high demand from several different firework exhibitions, were contributing factors in this instance. Moreover, the site emergency plan was not activated properly.
The key learning point was that special care must be taken when transferring fireworks. You can download this article for free here.
The fireworks fire at Marlie Farm in Sussex, described by Ken Patterson, is a classic example of the perils and disastrous consequences of not complying with regulations.
Fireworks were stored, and then exploded, in non-licensed locations. The quantities stored, and their hazard ratings, both exceeded permitted levels. The power of the explosion was equivalent to 190-300 kg TNT – similar to a typical terrorist car bomb, and we all know the devastation they cause. Two fire fighters were killed and the two people responsible for the facility were jailed for manslaughter.
The overall lessons? Well, comply with regulations, light the touch paper and retire to a safe distance.
To read the special issue of the Loss Prevention Bulletin: Fireworks and Explosives, you can subscribe at www.icheme.org/lpb