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 head. We don motorcycle helmets as well as heavy shoes and jackets. If the helmets don’t have a face shield, we add eye protection. While I was an apprentice in the 1980s, I encountered many old-time operators who considered it wussy to wear a helmet– I saw a guy shoot a show wearing nothing but a baseball cap. Even back then, I remember thinking he was crazy.

The precautions don’t end with the show. Afterward, we scan the grounds for unlit duds, and make sure no shells are left in the guns.

My crew and I have been lucky—we’ve never had an accident. But I remember helping out on a show many years ago, where a sleep-deprived operator hastily set up a rack of shells. The concussion of the shell leaving the gun split the loosely assembled wooden rack, which fell over, injuring the shooter’s leg as fireworks shells spewed out along the ground.

Assuming the risks for such a pleasure is bittersweet. Fifteen years ago, I was in Huajuapan, a town in Oaxaca, Mexico, which was celebrating the festival of Señor de los Corazones. The town square was filled with fireworks. I stood only a few feet from the show, alongside children playing in the planter boxes that held the guns. The shooters, clad in t-shirts and jeans, casually lit the fuses with cigarettes. It was an unforgettable, visceral thrill. But would I take that risk again? Never.

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Wilson. For more information on fireworks safety, go to

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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1 Comment

  1. Just a couple additional items…A better choice for your mortars would be HDPE. PVC will fragment in the case of a shell detonation within the tube. As with guns you should always assume that there is a live round in the mortar and never place any body part you wish to keep away from the shell flight path. Masking tape placed across a loaded tube will indicat a loaded mortar and if the tape is present at the end of the shoot it indicates an un-shot shell.