Tips for a safe Fourth of July
Jul01

Tips for a safe Fourth of July

If you plan to use fireworks this weekend, a few notes from the Consumer Product Safety Commission: CPSC has new data indicating that there were 11 deaths and nearly 12,000 ER-treated injuries from fireworks in 2015–the highest number in 15 years. … In CPSC’s new fireworks report, 9 of the 11 deaths involved reloadable aerial devices, a professional grade fireworks device that can quickly result in tragedy, when used incorrectly. In 2015, the deadliest fireworks incidents most often involved males older than 20. Young adults between the ages of 15 and 19 accounted for the highest rate of injuries, followed by children 5 to 9 years of age. About 65 percent of all injuries involved burns from devices such as sparklers, bottle rockets and firecrackers. Consumers who decide to purchase consumer fireworks are urged to follow these safety steps: Make sure consumer fireworks are legal in your area before buying or using them. (View Fact Sheet) Never use or make professional grade fireworks. Never allow young children to play with or ignite fireworks, including sparklers. Sparklers burn at temperatures of about 2,000 degrees°F─hot enough to melt some metals. Do not buy fireworks that are packaged in brown paper, which is often a sign that the fireworks were made for professional displays. Never place any part of your body directly over a fireworks device when lighting the fuse. Move to a safe distance immediately after lighting fireworks. Keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy, in case of fire or other mishap. Never try to relight or handle malfunctioning fireworks. Soak them with water and throw them away. Never point or throw fireworks at another person. Light fireworks one at a time, then move away from them quickly. After fireworks complete their burning, douse the spent device with plenty of water from a bucket or hose before discarding the device to prevent a trash fire. Here’s CPSC’s video for this year. It features football player Jason Pierre-Paul, who lost part of his right hand in a fireworks incident last year. Though my favorite video is still the one from...

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Play it safe with fireworks
Jul02

Play it safe with fireworks

From my local newspaper last week: SAN JOSE — When Alazar Ortiz woke up at Regional Medical Center the morning after the Fourth of July last year, his gaze immediately went to the two huge fists of bandages and gauze at the end of his forearms. “I didn’t know what I had left,” said the 40-year-old San Jose resident. “So I tried to move my fingers, and I went ‘Wow. I don’t have any fingers.” Ortiz lost his right hand and all but two fingers on his left when a powerful mortar-style firework detonated unexpectedly at a Fourth of July celebration at his family’s home near Cassell Park. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), 11 people were killed and more than 10,000 were injured by fireworks in 2014. Three of the people killed weren’t even involved in setting off the fireworks–one was a woman who died from smoke inhalation when a sparkler was thrown into a second-floor window, and two were a couple killed when debris from a neighbor’s fireworks set fire to their home. Here are CPSC’s fireworks safety tips: Make sure the fireworks you want to buy are legal in your area before buying or using them. Never allow young children to play with or ignite fireworks, including sparklers. Sparklers burn at temperatures of about 2,000 degrees─hot enough to melt some metals. Do not buy fireworks that are packaged in brown paper, which is often a sign that the fireworks were made for professional displays. Never place any part of your body directly over a fireworks device when lighting the fuse. Back up to a safe distance immediately after lighting fireworks. Keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy, in case of fire or other mishap. Never try to relight or handle malfunctioning fireworks. Soak them with water and throw them away. Never point or throw fireworks at another person. Light fireworks one at a time, then move away from them quickly. After fireworks complete their burning, douse the spent device with plenty of water from a bucket or hose before discarding the device to prevent a trash fire. Update to add CPSC’s 2015 fireworks safety video, which released after I set up this...

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Have a fireworks-safe Fourth of July
Jun28

Have a fireworks-safe Fourth of July

If your area is similar to mine, the fireworks vendors will be out this weekend. “Between June 22, 2012 and July 22, 2012, more than 5,000 consumers were treated in hospital emergency rooms due to fireworks-related injuries,” the Consumer Product Safety Commission says. “More than half of these reported injuries involved burns to the hands, head and face. About 1,000 reported injuries involved sparklers and bottle rockets, fireworks that are frequently and incorrectly considered safe for young children.” CPSC has a nice graphic with a breakdown of fireworks injury statistics, and there’s a similar one at an attorney group’s blog. CPSC also produced this video a few years ago. It’s a bit of an orgy of ways to destroy mannequins, but it gets the point across. Here are CPSC’s safety tips for using fireworks: Never allow young children to play with or ignite fireworks. Avoid buying fireworks that are packaged in brown paper because this is often a sign that the fireworks were made for professional displays and that they could pose a danger to consumers. Always have an adult supervise fireworks activities. Parents don’t realize that young children suffer injuries from sparklers. Sparklers burn at temperatures of about 2,000 degrees – hot enough to melt some metals. Never place any part of your body directly over a fireworks device when lighting the fuse. Back up to a safe distance immediately after lighting fireworks. Never try to re-light or pick up fireworks that have not ignited fully. Never point or throw fireworks at another person. Keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy in case of fire or other mishap. Light fireworks one at a time, then move back quickly. Never carry fireworks in a pocket or shoot them off in metal or glass containers. After fireworks complete their burning, douse the spent device with plenty of water from a bucket or hose before discarding it to prevent a trash fire. Make sure fireworks are legal in your area before buying or using them. One of C&EN’s staff is a licensed pyrotechnician. She wrote a post a few years ago about how she handles safety at fireworks...

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Letter on Donaldson Enterprises fatal fireworks incident
Mar26

Letter on Donaldson Enterprises fatal fireworks incident

A letter to the editor in this week’s C&EN focuses on a fatal fireworks disposal incident in 2011, when five Donaldson Enterprises died in an explosion and fire in a storage magazine after disassembling contraband fireworks: As a chemist with more than 50 years’ involvement with display fireworks, I find it appalling that in the Donaldson Enterprises Inc. incident the safest and most obvious means of disposal was apparently never considered (C&EN, Jan. 28, page 26). Simply firing the materials normally and allowing them to function as designed in a safe place would have been a far better course of action. Display fireworks are fundamentally different from munitions and other classes of explosives in too many ways to list here. But following are a few of the more salient differences applicable to disposal: They are often complex in construction, not designed with disassembly in mind, and widely varied in the number of different pyrotechnic compositions that might be present in a single device. They are not reliably destroyed by water or other liquids, are perilous to cut into, and are dangerous to mass-incinerate whether wet or dry. Disposal involving such methods requires great caution and a full knowledge of the product and should be reserved only for situations where conventional firing is impossible. It appears that the materials in this case were not damaged or defective, but were merely mislabeled. Had they been properly marked and classified for professional use, they would have been perfectly suitable for that purpose. Therefore, there was no practical necessity for disposal by unusual means. This raises the question of whether the root cause of this tragedy was, in fact, bureaucratic: Might arbitrary yet rigid protocols have precluded a far safer and simpler disposal? It would not be the first time that safety has been sacrificed upon its own altar by misguided policy. I’m not sure it’s safe to assume that the fireworks were neither damaged nor defective or that “arbitrary yet rigid protocols…precluded a far safer and simpler disposal.” I don’t think the Chemical Safety Board addressed whether the fireworks were in good condition–from what I understand, no one with fireworks expertise ever looked at them, which frankly seems to be the whole reason those five workers died. As for whether bureaucracy was at fault, CSB actually pointed to a lack of regulations and protocols as contributing to the incident. From the CSB report (pdf): Contractor Selection and Oversight Findings The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), which governs federal agencies’ acquisition of goods and services, does not specifically require a federal contracting officer to consider safety performance measures and qualifications when determining the “responsibility”...

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Fireworks safety
Jul01

Fireworks safety

In honor of Canada Day and Independence Day, here’s an essay on fireworks safety by C&EN senior editor and licensed pyrotechnician Elizabeth Wilson. Have a safe holiday, everyone! Few avocations demand such attention to safety as lighting fireworks. Many a post-fourth-of-July newspaper will feature a story about an accident in which some unfortunate and usually foolhardy person lost a finger or an eye to firecrackers or bottle rockets. But accidents that happen during big, professional fireworks shows are often deadly. I’m a licensed pyrotechnician, and I’ve been lighting the big bombs for 20 years. But now that I’m a parent, and as my youthful love of booms and gunpowder gives way to middle-aged contemplation of mortality, I find myself weighing the risks and wondering if it’s ever possible to be safe enough. While it’s true that most of the larger fireworks shows nowadays are safely discharged by computer with the operators at a safe distance, many modest-sized shows–such as the one my crew and I shoot each 4th of July in the town of Benicia in northern California–still employ the crude, decades-old method of lighting shells by hand with a road flare. (In our increasingly safety-conscious culture, it surprises me that it’s still even legal to light fireworks by hand at all. Beaker, who stopped by to watch the show a couple of years ago, voiced his agreement.) For many of us, hand firing is a big part of the thrill—sparks flying everywhere, the chest-rattling percussions of fireworks shells shooting out of tubes at hundreds of feet per second. The paper-sheathed fuse that trails off each shell burns at 30 feet per second. So once it’s lit, there’s no time to get away, and we can only hunch over while shell explodes out of the gun. Old-timers scoff at the sanitized button pushing of modern choreographed shows. But there’s no question that it’s a dangerous game. Fortunately, taking rigorous safety precautions can greatly reduce, though not eliminate, some of the risks. A lot of safety precautions can be addressed before the show. We sturdily nail together racks filled with paper or PVC tubes (or ‘guns’), which will hold the round fireworks shells. We examine the shells–which come from China, Japan, and even Brazil or Germany–to ensure no gunpowder lift charge is leaking and that no fuse is damaged. We make sure the shells are loaded correctly in the guns. (I once worked on a show where some shells were loaded upside down—when lit, they went down instead of up, and exploded inside the gun. Good thing I wasn’t lighting them.) The most important body part to protect, obviously, is your...

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